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Sunderland v Bradford City - EFL Trophy

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Standards & Leadership: Sunderland MUST show both against Ipswich

Set a new standard and embrace the pressure - Ipswich is an ideal chance for Sunderland to reinvigorate their season.

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

So, another international break is done and dusted.

England are Qatar-bound, Craig Gordon is rolling back the years for both club and country, and Tom Flanagan and Corry Evans both played their part in Northern Ireland holding Italy to a creditable scoreless draw - a result that will have given the Sunderland duo a welcome shot of confidence ahead of this weekend’s game.

All in all, a pretty decent return for current and ex-Sunderland players.

Northern Ireland v Italy - 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

And now, it’s back to the grind of the league.

Arriving at the Stadium of Light this Saturday are Ipswich, below us in the table but in good form, having recovered from a dreadful start to the season following a seismic summer overhaul.

Indeed, during the offseason many of our fans felt that, after bringing so many new signings to Portman Road, Paul Cook’s team would be among the league’s pacesetters, and that their ‘all in’ approach to recruitment was something we should’ve attempted to replicate ourselves.

In any case, they went one way, we went another, and now we meet in what could be a very intriguing game.

While many of Sunderland’s players, as well as Lee Johnson, would doubtless have used the international break to rest and take stock following a dismal set of results, fan unrest continues to simmer, following the penalty shootout defeat to Bradford in the EFL Trophy and the subsequent eleven-day gap to our next game.

From results at the weekend pushing us down the table, to a photograph of Charlie Methven that was circulated earlier in the week, it is obvious that anything and everything is ripe for scrutiny and criticism. Maybe it’s all just part of the emotional rollercoaster that we’re aboard, but one thing is for certain: some positivity has to be re-injected, and Saturday is the first chance to do just that.

As my Roker Report colleague Sean Brown wrote earlier this week, Saturday’s game, in league terms, is not make-or-break by any stretch of the imagination.

For Lee Johnson, however, it is a match in which he needs his players to react strongly and deliver for him. If they aren’t desperate to make amends for an appalling series of results, then something has gone very wrong indeed.

For those who believe that Johnson cannot turn it around, he will be in a back-to-the-wall situation at 3:00pm - and in the eyes of the fans who do still back him, he needs to prove that when the pressure is cranked up, he can show his credentials and demonstrate that this job isn’t ‘too big for him’, as has previously been suggested.

His team selection will undoubtedly be scrutinised, and whether he’s brave or pragmatic in that regard is certainly going to be interesting.

Sunderland v Bradford City - EFL Trophy Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In recent weeks, Johnson has shown significant loyalty (perhaps even too much) to many of his players, most notably the members of the much-discussed ‘leadership group’, and if you were to answer the question honestly, how many of them have really stamped their mark on what has been a hit and miss promotion challenge so far?

Personally, I do have doubts about the idea of delegating leadership responsibilities to more than one player.

I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to captaincy, and the idea of having one totemic, go-to person in your squad (Kevin Ball is the player who comes to mind here) who can set the standards and inspire his teammates has always been reliable.

I don’t expect Johnson to dismantle what he has put together, but it is crucial that standards, so key for a club in our position, are not allowed to slip.

As fans, we can talk about ‘not accepting’ certain performances and results, but there are only eleven men who can control matters when it comes to the crunch, and recent weeks should have emphasized that point loudly and clearly.

Suffice it to say, the questions are many ahead of Saturday’s game.

Is it now time to field a two-pronged forward line in Nathan Broadhead and Ross Stewart? Will Callum Doyle be able to rebuild towards his early-season form? Can Aiden McGeady, if selected, make an impact that doesn’t involve a reckless tackle and a red card?

These are far more important issues than much of the peripheral stuff that has been talked about over the past week.

Queens Park Rangers v Sunderland - Carabao Cup - Fourth Round - Kiyan Prince Foundation Stadium Photo by Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images

In the eyes of many, this weekend’s game is a foregone conclusion, and one narrative is that Ipswich are bound to be too strong, too savvy, and will depart Wearside with three points in the bag.

None of this is necessarily true, and it’s up to our lads to show it.

League One can often throw up unexpected results, and if we are considered ‘‘underdogs’ heading into the game, I’m certain that players and coaches alike will be keen to prove that it was a mistake to dismiss our chances of victory. With a winnable series of games to come, victory would be a welcome relief, and a chance to breathe new life into our season.

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