Trips to Fratton Park never seem to go too well, do they?
Before Saturday, Sunderland had only won once at Portsmouth during our time in League One, and the home side were winless in their last eight; Sunderland unbeaten in the same period.
There’s often a bit of needle in games between the two sides, and Saturday proved to be a hurtful and devastating 4-0 defeat on a day where Portsmouth’s season may have been revitalised, whereas Sunderland’s was a vital learning experience.
The combination of horrific weather conditions and a poor performance produced a wake-up call for the Black Cats after Tuesday night’s 5-0 victory over Cheltenham at the Stadium of Light.
After that win, Sunderland came into Saturday’s match full of hope and optimism - Fratton Park may have been another away ground where they showed their promotion credentials, yet it proved to be far from the case in the end.
Lee Johnson was forced into making changes after Tuesday win: the Sunderland manager opting for experience and a more defensive approach. Bailey Wright was favoured ahead of Callum Doyle, who returned to a place on the bench, whilst Dennis Cirkin was reinserted at left-back.
Yet, it proved to be Portsmouth who began the strongest - their pressing causing Sunderland many problems, and the Black Cats were unable to push themselves out of their own half, struggling to gain any sort of control on the game.
It was a quick start from the home side, and their first effort saw Marcus Harness’ deflected effort drop just over the Sunderland bar, but with their rampant home sell-out atmosphere, it felt like only a matter of time before the deadlock was broken - and so it proved.
Harness was the scorer, with Sunderland unable to deal with the threat of Lee Brown on the left wing, as he steered the ball back to the Portsmouth midfielder, whose shot deflected off the leg of Cirkin and dropped into the bottom left corner.
It felt like Portsmouth were growing from strength to strength, with Sunderland unable to adapt to the circumstances and conditions at Fratton Park, as their first and best move of the first 45 coming when O’Brien was released, manoeuvering his way into the penalty area, but his shot was blocked and deflected over by Sean Raggett.
Lee Johnson’s side were losing the key battles in the middle of the park, and the Portsmouth press was proving to be too dangerous, as they doubled the lead with 33 minutes on the clock.
After Curtis’ tackle on O’Nien, the home side recycled possession, and Harness’ cut-back finally dropped to the feet of Lee Brown, who was able to side-foot it into the bottom right corner.
Sunderland desperately needed a wake-up call, but that felt far away, as Harness’ right-footed curling drive drifted just over the bar, and the game was arguably over just before the interval.
It proved to be the easiest of the first three goals, as Ronan Curtis’ free-kick targeted John Marquis at the front post, and it was flicked into the bottom right corner, by what looked like a combination of the Pompey striker and Dennis Cirkin.
Sunderland needed something at half time, and it proved to come in the form of Callum Doyle, as Lee Johnson sought to push more bodies forward and more reassurance in possession at the back, with a switch to a back three.
In previous weeks, Lee Johnson discussed his frustration at a potential fixture backlog later on in the season, but would have preferred this one at Fratton Park to be abandoned, as his side were going out without a fight.
Despite the half-time alteration, they lacked creativity in the final third and were punished for their errors in defence, as Portsmouth should have had a fourth, as Shaun Williams’ header from Curtis’ corner was nodded into the gloves of Hoffmann.
It always felt like the score-line would become more devastating for Sunderland, and so it proved, as they conceded a fourth goal that combined their poor display and the dreadful conditions.
The ball stuttered twice before possession was picked up by Joe Morrell, who dinked a lovely ball over the top of the Sunderland defence for John Marquis. First, his header was palmed down into his path by Hoffmann, before he was able to poke the ball into the back of an empty net.
Danny Cowley’s side may have had more on an afternoon where they may have revitalised their League One season, as Ryan Tunnicliffe’s chip - after Marcus Harness slipped the ball through to the midfielder - was caught by Thorben Hoffmann.
Sunderland almost nabbed a consolation in the latter stages of the match, but despite all of Dennis Cirkin’s work to get into a shooting position, he angled his shot narrowly wide of the right post.
It proved to be a small moment of quality within a poor performance, as the Sunderland fans filled the players and management with optimism on the full-time whistle.
For Sunderland, hopefully it’s just a blip. It was a defeat that combined both the dire weather conditions and the poor performance on the pitch, and it proved to be a sense of awakening for the Black Cats.
This League One season won’t be easy; there will be blips and success throughout, and it’s a season that consists of 46 matches - not just the first 10.
Yes, this defeat has mostly eradicated the goal difference created by Tuesday night’s 5-0 victory, but the international break arguably comes at the worst time for the Black Cats.
It’ll be a tough month ahead with five more away matches, and the support shown at the full-time whistle will only help the players to react - it’s a tough and hurtful defeat to take, but yet again, it’s a message of unity and response from Lee Johnson and his team.
Johnson understood the weaknesses that his side posed on Saturday at Fratton Park, and also recognised the impact of the conditions, but as he referred to, Sunderland will need to combat different challenges this season.
This one proved to be one where they didn’t pass, but it’ll be a learning curve for the future, as this youthful side will have to face these challenges another time this season, and it’ll only help.
Sunderland have come far in the last two months, but if Saturday showed anything, it proved that this side still has far to go before they reach their peak.