OK, so the smoke has partially cleared after a dismal day in Yorkshire for anyone of a red and white persuasion, as we followed up a cup victory over QPR with a thoroughly comprehensive 5-1 hammering at the hands of Rotherham.
It wasn’t difficult to figure out why things went so badly wrong on the day. They were aggressive, and we were not. They played with intelligence and physicality, and we appeared meek and afraid of the battle.
If the 4-0 loss at Fratton Park was bad, this was arguably even worse, because we couldn’t blame external factors such as the weather, the pitch, or the referee. It was simply a seriously bad team performance.
Predictably, the post-game Twitter analysis was bleak, angry, and often resigned: ‘Same old Sunderland’, ‘Streaky Lee Johnson’, ‘bottle merchants’, and so on.
Few players escaped a roasting for their individual performances, most notably Luke O’Nien, Callum Doyle and Thorben Hoffmann. Even Aiden McGeady, for so long hailed as our saviour and talisman, found himself castigated (and rightly so, because his red card was utterly foolish, given his status as a senior pro and one of the club’s on-field leaders).
Suffice it to say, Saturday evening was an unwelcome window into our recent past, where fan fury was constantly simmering and unease about ‘false dawns’ was never far from the discussion.
While it would be a significant stretch to claim that the good feeling of the opening few months of the season has now evaporated completely, it is certainly true that our promotion challenge has hit turbulent waters in recent weeks, and consequently, the mood is not as upbeat as it was a month or so ago.
The upshot of all this is that tomorrow night’s game at Hillsborough has now become a must-win.
On the back of Saturday, and with an upcoming FA Cup tie against Mansfield that will feel somewhat meaningless, we must beat Sheffield Wednesday to keep ourselves up among the league’s pacesetters. Forget the cold comfort of games in hand, which is something we’ve relied on far too often in recent times: we simply have to do the business on the night.
Saturday’s defeat, and particularly the half-hearted manner of it, can be one of those watershed games that can either propel a team towards long-term success, or can derail a season completely, and shackle us back to the old routine of managerial firings and the upheaval that goes with it.
Physically we need to toughen up, and mentally we need to sharpen up. Callow, timid teams seldom win promotion, and whilst I fully back the decision to show faith in young players, they need to get far more streetwise in the ways of League One football, and rapidly.
The ongoing lack of plans B and C, should our go-to style of play not work, has to be addressed.
Looking at the bigger picture, I would not be at all surprised if this season follows a similar pattern to that of the 2006/2007 promotion season under Roy Keane, a season that, despite its memorable ending, was not without its ups and downs.
From his arrival in August 2006, until January 2007, our results and performances were inconsistent and often questionable. When the New Year arrived, the likes of Carlos Edwards and Jonny Evans were recruited, and we accelerated towards the finishing line and ultimately, achieved our aim of a return to the top flight.
In terms of this season, if we are in that top six come January 2022, and with some more shrewd additions, who’s to say that we couldn’t repeat the same feat?
As to any question marks over Lee Johnson’s position? I feel that it is ridiculously premature to consider such an option, even after such a dismal result, and amid the ongoing rumblings about his tactical approach.
It is abundantly clear that, since their arrival, and particularly following the limp end to last season, Johnson, Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus have attempted to implement a plan for this season that culminates with promotion.
The summer recruitment was clearly geared towards Johnson’s vision of a younger and more dynamic squad, and as a result of that, we are no longer saddled with a crop of wage-stealers who had zero interest in actually contributing. Individual performance levels have fluctuated, without a doubt, but there is little evidence to suggest that team spirit is weakening, or that the players aren’t playing for their manager.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that they let him down at the weekend, and that they must atone for it.
It is still too early to label tomorrow’s game as a ‘season-defining’ game, but it is a key game nonetheless. Let’s hope that the players can show the right qualities and ensure that our travels to Yorkshire don’t yield two defeats.