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Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Editorial: Determination & mental strength – why Saturday’s win was the perfect answer to Pompey

It won’t feature on the ‘best performances of the season’ list come May, but Saturday’s display told us an awful lot about the mental strength of this Sunderland side.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It wasn’t the best performance in the world on Saturday, was it? First half, we looked slow and seemed to have some difficulty living with Gillingham’s physicality.

Priestfield’s always been a hard place for us to go to – we’ve had some decent wins there but it’s always a battle whenever you play a Steve Evans side, and Saturday was no exception.

For the majority of the first half, I must admit I was doubting whether or not we’d come through the game unscathed. Our passing was off, our ‘front four’ weren’t linking up with each other, and we just didn’t look ‘at the races’ at the cliche goes.

Returning to league action after the Portsmouth debacle – which I think we do need to firmly write off as an anomaly – it was a huge test for the lads.

Call it good play, call it good luck, but that goal just on the stroke of half time was incredibly important – but it showed both the quality on the ball that we have and the mental resilience that’s now embedded into the team.

First of all, the quality. Dan Neil’s ball into Aiden O’Brien was reminiscent of Jordan Henderson’s delivery to Asamoah Gyan away at Wigan all those years ago. It was a stunning ball in, and deserved to be finished – which O’Brien did, with style.

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Glad he didn’t go to Doncaster?!
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Neil struggled to get into the game consistently himself, but when he was on the ball he looked a level above. For us to progress and develop, we need to play through Neil more regularly – he can make things happen.

The second goal, too, was created by a beautiful ball in from Alex Pritchard – another moment of quality that few teams in the division possess. Pritchard’s had a slow start here – he caught Covid shortly after arriving, and found it difficult to get into the team due to the form of Elliot Embleton. The youngster’s rash challenge on Saturday – a deserved red, in my view – will give Pritchard more chances over the coming games, and hopefully we’ll see more glimpses of what made him an £11m player only a few seasons ago.

More impressive than the moments of quality that proved the difference on the ball, however, was the mental strength on display. It’s not the first time we’ve seen a genuine toughness run throughout the side – a toughness that’s been sorely lacking during our time in League One – but it was there in spades on Saturday, and is the primary reason why we came away with three points, rather than none.

This mental strength, determination, focus – whatever you want to call it – is evident throughout the team; Flanagan’s goal came directly from it. Can you imagine Will Grigg, for example, risking serious injury to get onto the end of that cross?

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Flanagan’s bravery got us the second - and typified the desire throughout the squad
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Lee Johnson and the team behind him have obviously prioritised this as an attribute that leads to being a successful player here. The establishment of the leadership group – derided by some ‘social media experts’ during pre-season – is important here too.

The leadership group is a common structure in different sports around the world, and can create a shared responsibility within the team, a determination and leadership throughout that can result in the players themselves taking far more responsibility for the outcome the group achieves.

The togetherness of the group is evident too, demonstrated by the exemplary attitude displayed by the players on the fringes who’ve come in to fill gaps in recent weeks. Aiden O’Brien being a prime example. Players have filled in out of position, have been ready when called upon, and importantly know their roles in the team. After seasons of evident discontent among the playing staff, it’s good to see we’ve finally developed a united group who are determined to do well for the club.

Footballing wise, there’s plenty more to come – the likes of Hoffmann, Cirkin, Neil, Embleton, Doyle, Huggins and Stewart are still way off realising their potential, and that’s such an exciting thing to see develop in front of us.

They’re getting better every week.

Take Dennis Cirkin, for example. As a left back he doesn’t get the plaudits other players do, but he’s made that position his own – is wonderfully comfortable on the ball, offers a threat going forward, but is superb defensively, too. He made at least one goal line clearance on Saturday, and it’s not the first time he’s been in the right place at the right time, either.

In addition, Hoffmann, was superb, and probably won us one point, if not all three.

A quick word on Luke O’Nien here, too. He was poor in the first half – he was sloppy in possession and gave away a needless penalty, too. He improved a bit in the second half, and as always his off the ball work was excellent – as we should expect from every player – but it was probably his worst footballing display of the season. Every player’s going to have an off game now and again, Saturday’s was O’Nien’s.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One
O’Nien had an off day on Saturday
Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For some reason, a sub-set of fans delight in any opportunity to criticise him. It began even before the game on Saturday, with sarcastic comments deriding his appointment as captain for the day, and exploded at his first misplaced pass. From there on in, social media was awash with this minority hammering O’Nien. If Corry Evans, Dan Neil or any other player in the squad had put that performance in, would they have been subjected to the same? Absolutely not.

Why does O’Nien get targeted like this? Who knows. George Honeyman – who shared many attributes O’Nien displays – suffered from the same here. It’s absolutely bewildering.

Yes, we’re all going to have differences of opinion on players. People will argue very reasonably that Dan Neil and Corry Evans should be our first choice centre midfield, and a reasonable discussion on that has merit.

But the scrutiny O’Nien’s put under – scrutiny far greater than literally every other player we have – is mind blowing.

He’s a Sunderland player, he works his bollocks off every game, and it literally the epitome of the type of character, on and off the field, this club needs to succeed. Added to that, he’s been very good in centre midfield for the majority of the season – Dan Neil is fulsome in his praise of O’Nien’s work which enables him the space to play football. The criticism serves no positive purpose for what we as a club, and as a squad, need to achieve this season.

Anyway, that aside, we’re in a bloody good place right now. Before this run of away games, I’d have probably settled for draws at Portsmouth and Gillingham, and a win at Crewe. We’re tracking a point ahead of that tally at present, and – regardless of injuries – we have to head down to Gresty Road fully confident of taking all three points.

And, with the mental strength, determination and footballing quality we have, we should do just that.

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