What this season has taught me about my football club is that it’s pointless getting too carried away about anything. Doing so will only make you look daft at some point, so proclamations about our promotion chances or the respective abilities of our players are more often than not going to come back and bite you on the arse.
Instead, we must remain realistic.
The reality is that if Sunderland can’t build on results like the one on Tuesday, we won’t be getting out of the third tier this season.
Harsh lessons must be learnt from our experiences earlier in the campaign – the players must remember how it felt when they failed on numerous occasions to take points off poor teams, or teams in poor form. They must keep in mind how disappointing it feels knowing you’ve let yourselves and the fanbase down at a time when everyone was just waiting to believe in you.
There are positives that we now must build from – in particular, the scoring form of our most established centre forward, who keeps on coming up with the goods when required.
Charlie Wyke’s goalscoring form this season is difficult to argue against. In three fewer games, he’s one goal worse off than Josh Maja was when he left to join Bordeaux in 2019. Wyke, no matter what I or anyone else thinks of him, is doing the business this season, and deserves credit for turning things around.
I won’t sit here and pretend that I think he’s the greatest forward in the league, or that he’s showing that he’s capable of playing at a higher level... because if I did, I’d just be getting carried away. Wyke is a League One striker playing at the peak of his abilities. He’s a goal threat in a team that doesn’t score nearly enough, and that’s commendable.
He’s staying fit, and the team is now built around him. His partnership with Aiden O’Brien is showing real signs of encouragement – O’Brien is the foil that Wyke needs to simply be able to do his job.
O’Brien runs the channels, drops deep, goes wide, occupies defenders and just generally makes a nuisance of himself. That, combined with the added threat of Aiden McGeady – a player who strikes fear into managers of all clubs at this level mainly due to his reputation, and his ability to carve open defences and make full backs look silly – has removed the burden from Wyke to do all of those jobs himself.
For the first time, Wyke can focus on getting into the right positions to score goals. His role has been simplified, and he’s benefitting as a result.
I guess you have to attribute some of the credit to Lee Johnson, because not only has he retained faith in a striker who was actually scoring goals for the last manager, but he’s worked out a way of playing that gets the best from him.
O’Brien and McGeady were cast aside under Phil Parkinson, and in truth I didn’t expect either to become first team regulars any time soon, yet here we are. Johnson’s clearly identified that for Wyke to stick the ball away, we need to beef up our forward line with players who can act as a decoy; men who will distract and occupy defences for long enough so that they eventually slip and give us the one or two chances per game that we need to stick the ball in the net.
People expecting miracles from the new boss, particularly this early into his reign, are not being fair. Only small, marginal improvements can be realistically made until he’s able to craft this side in his own vision, bringing players on board who can play in the way he wants to see his side playing. For now, he’s got to look at what he’s got and work out what they’re good at, and what they can perhaps improve in order to turn draws into wins.
I think it’s very clear from what Johnson has said since arriving that, in an ideal world, his team would be packed with players that possess pace, creativity and athleticism. Since we don’t have a lot of players with those characteristics, Johnson’s got to adapt. He’s got to set Sunderland up in a manner that makes us most effective. He’s got to look at what Phil Parkinson did well, and not only carry that forward but also add to it.
And, in fairness, I’d say in the main that we’ve done that. We’ve remained defensively solid, and our record away from home is still fantastic. We don’t score enough goals, but we do seem to be creating more clear opportunities.
Something Ant said to me on the Podcast after the Ipswich game was absolutely spot on – we’re not sharing the goals around enough.
I’d attribute that largely to two things. One, we’re building the team around Wyke and getting goals from him. Everything – from our wide play, to the running from deep that our central players do – is focused on getting the ball into Wyke’s feet inside the 18 yard box. Because of this, it seems as though we’re less likely to take risks and shoot from range.
The other thing is our set pieces. It’s obvious that our poor deliveries from corners in particular have been identified as an issue, but the solution hasn’t quite worked. Short corners are not working, and we’re wasting opportunities, time after time.
These are small things, but the small details are important. Get them right, and we’ll continue progressing up the league table. This is not a good league, and the teams above us are really not that much better than us. We’re capable of beating anyone.
What we’re not doing is taking enough of the chances afforded to us. Winning more of our home games, putting into practice better forward play, is pretty much all that we need to do in order to achieve our goals this season. Johnson is no mug, and he likely knows this.
The key will be convincing his players to buy into his ideas, making them believe in themselves.
Fostering a winning mentality in the squad and developing a ruthless streak – something Sunderland simply haven’t had since dropping out of the Premier League – will surely see us shape up as proper promotion contenders.
Becoming a side that others fear, with players who we can rely upon to deliver the goods, is simply a must if we are to get out of this division this time around. I fully believe that Johnson has the bollocks to deliver on that – will his players also step up to the plate?
It’s been a good week, but we mustn’t undo the fantastic work in the last two games by screwing it up when we take on Gillingham this Saturday. They’ve been notoriously difficult to beat since we entered League One, but we must look positively towards the occasion.
Winning will be a real show from management and the players that this team is ready and capable to be considered a proper contender at the top of the table.
It almost feels as though we’re all just waiting for the boulder to roll down the hill this season. We’ve been here before, lingering around the middle of the table, before a massive upswing in form saw us climb the table to become Champions. It happened most recently in 2005 and 2007 – Sunderland have had memorable EFL promotion campaigns in the past that this generation of fans can reflect upon.
With heart and desire, Sunderland have shown before that we can take advantage of the misfortune of others to claim gold come the end of the season.
We’re all just waiting for that feeling of belief to return.