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Sunderland v Accrington Stanley - Sky Bet League One

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Talking Points: Dan Neil is the real deal - & whilst the king returned, he couldn’t get a sniff!

We’re a few days out from the canny win at Lincoln, and the performance gave us (and the Sunderland manager, of course!) plenty to think about, particularly once the international break is over.

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Did the lads bounce back suitably enough after that last horror show?

Most fans and observers of the 4-0 away loss last Saturday were pretty fed up come 5pm that day.

For a change, however, many were also quite willing to accept that we had experienced a one-off bad day in bad weather away from home, and that we would rapidly return to the form we had shown before that dip - a dip that applied to both the playing conditions and our team performance, in one almighty bag of crap of a coincidence.

A sh*t show.

For those who felt as “glass half full” as I do with the start we have seen this season, bouncing back at the first possible opportunity was key, and on reflection I feel that we did that at the LNER stadium.

Yes, there were a raft of changes so we didn’t bounce back with the same starting eleven, but there were quite a few personnel alterations for Lincoln too, who have almost qualified for the next round due to Papa Johns wins before we turned up.

If we are to put to bed this rumour of Lee being a bit streaky, we need to see good streaks with very occasional dips, and then more good streaks.

That is a streaky habit we will all welcome.

Tuesday night was a solid performance away from home, played on a pitch that was way more aligned to the football we are now trying to play, and we got the job done. In terms of bouncing back from a drubbing in a very specifically shaped puddle, we did a good job, and for that we should all be quite happy, and in fact pretty upbeat. HMS P*ss the League is back on course, after a slight scratch on the hull from a passing iceberg.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Can someone pass the shower gel…
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

What did we think of the Return of the King?

The away game at Sincil bank ended up being an occasion where “he who we once called the King” faced us from the opposite side of the pitch.

Chris Maguire was named among the starting eleven, and all those Sunderland fans who have superstitions of payback as part of their set of worry beads were no doubt seeing premonitions of top corner screamers from Maguire, probably from the moment the team sheet was out in print.

In truth, the game played out to be a real demonstration that the King as we used to call him is now, as the phrase goes, dead (at least in terms of midfield maestros in red and white). A new king is in town for me, who goes by the moniker of Dan Neil.

While Maguire had his usual spell of five to ten minutes (in this case about 35 mins into the game) where he took a few powerful potshots from range, in this last game none of them came off against his old side.

With some strong saves from Burge and a lack of accuracy from Chris both contributing to that, he then faded away, as he so often did in our colours.

While he struggled to change the game as he did so often at times in the past, a young man named Dan was quietly and eloquently going about his job, demonstrating why the decision by Johnson and co to release Maguire to make way for such youthful talent was exactly the right thing to do.

Dan Neil made Chris look what he is - a decent (at times) but dated midfield operator, who will likely spend the rest of his career at this level.

Those who faced up to him in yellow in the team he once represented are something better than that in many ways, and for that we can all be very grateful.

We have moved on from players like Chris, and that is one of the step changes which is more likely than many others to help us be that little bit harder to beat this season, in my view. And, a little bit more likely to go up.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy EFL Trophy
What a pearler. Well played Dan.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So, were any serious claims staked for starting shirts in the league?

As mentioned previously, a number of changes were made post the “puddle pounding”, and whether we won on the south coast in the rain or not, that was always going to be the case.

What was added to the relevance of this game, post that loss, was the opportunity for players coming into the starting eleven to show Johnson that he needs them in the league first team more than those who failed to turn up a few days prior.

There were a number of players who gave the coach something to think about in that way, and they existed from front to back.

Starting at the rear end, apart from what looked like a deflected consolation goal at the death, the very young (in age and in terms of playing together) back four with Lee Burge behind them came very close to a clean sheet.

They did that only a short while after the last clean sheet with Burge in goal, which came in the away Carabao cup win versus Wigan.

With the league’s first eleven failing to keep the onion bag anywhere near as protected of late, it has to be the case that the back five including the keeper have given Johnson something to think about for our next game at Gillingham. They certainly did their hopes of elevation through the ranks no harm, especially with the likes of Bailey Wright not exactly shining right now.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Almost another clean one for Lee. Well played lad.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Equally in midfield, for me, our captain and man of the match Dan Neil sent a huge telegram in two foot high red and white letters about why he should be back in the starting line up in the league.

From the first kick he was untouchable, and with a sublime goal, an assist and multiple demonstrations of how to make lesser skilled humans look like amateurs (including skinning Maguire for fun, and dribbling out of his own box past 3-4 opponents to protect our lead), he was nothing short of immense.

If he does not continue in the next league game, likely with another potentially shorter outing in the cup next week, Johnson will have a massive question hanging over him, from fans, the wider team and from Dan himself.

He is special… yes, I will go as far as to say I think maybe even potentially Henderson and Pickford level special.

We need to give him the midfield play maker shirt, and sign him up for a three-year-deal as soon as possible. He can and should lead us out in the Premier League in a few years.

He will play in that league, I have no doubt.

We need to make sure that is with a black cat on his sleeve.

Even up front, the lesser prolific and in places, much younger lads did themselves a world of good in front of the gaffer.

Aiden O’Brien was cruelly denied a goal by the right angle of bar and post after releasing a great curling shot that the keeper could only watch. Harris had a few sniffs and one great chance saved by the keeper. Wearne got his maiden goal for the club, and despite it going in off his lower windpipe, he will cherish that for some time to come.

He was in the right place at the right time, and we need goal scorers like that, just as much as we need those who can ping them in like Dan.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Papa John’s Trophy EFL Trophy
Right place right time Stephen. Well done son.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

So, were there any downsides from the game?

It is hard to be critical when you have won away from home, but doing so after Saturday was a necessity, so it is fair to call out a few areas which didn’t quite make the mark or make sense.

For instance, why on earth did Luke O’Nein come on when we were 2-0 up and in control only to pick up yet another injury?

Why did the coach not put one of the other players on, maybe give Kachosa some minutes, or throw Paddy Almond in to shore up the back with some fresh legs?

As mentioned in the Pod with Brett, I am starting to feel like Luke needs some time off to fully recover his body, and while we have such a rich depth of options, we should maybe do that now. Hopefully the knee in the back (which was a clear foul) will be a bump and bruise and he can play in a couple of weekends, but I really don’t don't get why he came on.

If we lose him for a while due to that, the coach has messed up there for me - the tackle wasn’t the coaches fault, but Luke being on the pitch was.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Checkatrade Trophy Final
Does our Luke need a rest?
Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

The other slight downside I would cite is that Pritchard has still not convinced me he is back up to speed and right for our team as yet.

He is clearly getting fitter and he had some good touches and movement at times, but he seems to be over complicating things a lot of the time, while failing to do the basics well.

Hopefully he will grow into a real attacking asset, but for me there is a chance he won’t really shine till we get out of this league, and start playing sides who operate in a way he is more used to.

Who knows, hopefully he comes through, though I am already worried about the frequency of the mentions of his £11m value from a few years ago… remember that other attacker we bought for lots of money at this level? Yeah. Let’s not focus on that too much, eh!

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Hopefully Pritch can click soon. Early days yet.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

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