Just over a month ago, Lee Johnson stood in front of the media at Hillsborough and stated that he was “pretty confident” that Sunderland would be able to “turn this form around pretty quickly”.
Sunderland had just been humiliated 3-0 at Sheffield Wednesday after being hammered at Rotherham the Saturday before, and were subsequently dumped out of the FA Cup and EFL Trophy.
Johnson reiterated throughout November that unity was key to turning the tide and, in truth, unity has been at the forefront of the plan that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, Kristjaan Speakman and Johnson had for the club from the very beginning.
Out of all of the wins and results this season, this may be by-far the most significant three points. It was an entertaining performance against a Plymouth Argyle side, that have been one of the division’s early leaders, despite not coming into the game in the best of form.
Yes, Sunderland had to dig deep during stages of the game, despite a very impressive opening display, but showed the resilience and mental character that had typified many of the early-season displays.
The relief upon the full-time whistle showed just what the three points meant on a day where the Black Cats gained more ground on the pace-setters, with both Wigan and Wycombe dropping two points each in the promotion race.
Lee Johnson was forced to field the same starting 11 for the third successive match, anc the same bench as on Tuesday, which illustrates the injury problems that Johnson has to deal with.
During the opening stages the Black Cats galloped out of the blocks, buoyed on by the thunderous Stadium of Light crowd, and within four minutes they found an immediate reward, thanks to a move straight from the training ground.
Pritchard’s short corner was flicked by Callum Doyle into the path of Dan Neil, who drove the ball into the bottom right corner.
Sunderland were dominating and beginning to pile on the pressure, proving dangerous in the final third for the Pilgrims’ defence. Dajaku coming close to doubling the Black Cats’ advantage just moments later, but his left-footed shot tested Michael Cooper in the Plymouth goal.
But it wasn’t long until that two-goal lead was established.
Pritchard orchestrated the move, sending Dajaku galloping down the right wing. The winger, on loan from Union Berlin, switched the ball past Ryan Broom, and cut it back for Nathan Broadhead, who elegantly flicked it past a helpless keeper.
The hosts were in full control with Dajaku proving pivotal – his left-footed effort was curled just around the left post.
Despite being two points clear at the top less than a month ago, Plymouth have been struggling over recent weeks, and were struggling to find a foothold in this one, with Dajaku’s pace, Pritchard’s creativity and Broadhead and Stewart’s physical presence all proving difficult for the Pilgrims to defend against.
However, just before the interval, the away side began to keep possession but failed to test what was proving to be a tough defensive structure – over hit crosses left prolific striker Ryan Hardie chance-less and frustrated with the lack of service.
After the half-time break, Plymouth continued in a similar vein, but posed a threat in the attacking areas. Hardie was looking more threatening in and around the penalty area, and had a great chance to half the deficit, as he twisted wonderfully past Bailey Wright in the 18-yard box, before his left-footed effort drew a superb close-range save from Thorben Hoffmann.
You always felt like a goal was on its way, but it was a question of who would take the initiative, and it proved to be Argyle. It came within simple circumstances, as Argyle’s Dan Scarr was able to prod the ball into the bottom left corner from Houghton’s corner-kick delivery.
It was the away side who were dominating second-half proceedings at the Stadium of Light with the added catalyst of an extremely-questionable refereeing display. Sunderland were being pinned within their own half, but posed a massive threat on the counter.
Nathan Broadhead’s right-footed curling effort was met by the fists of Cooper, and a golden opportunity arose in the latter stages of the contest to seal the game.
Stewart sent a long ball forward in what was looking like a hopeless chase for Aiden O’Brien, but the Plymouth goalkeeper missed his clearance of the ball and left O’Brien with an open goal – but his effort was blocked on the line by a desperate right leg of James Wilson.
For Sunderland, it was an ending that they have been so used to over the course of this season, as Plymouth threw bodies forward in the closing stages but failed to find the all-important equaliser – much to the delight of the home support.
And, on the whole, it allowed the Sunderland fans to breathe. It was a very nervy ending – a nervy second half altogether – during which it always felt like Plymouth would find a route back into levelling the match.
But, therein lies the change over the past week. The Black Cats headed into last Saturday’s clash with Oxford low on confidence despite the previous week’s 2-1 victory over Cambridge in challenging circumstances, after their exit from the Papa John’s Trophy.
But, over the course of three gutsy and entertaining home matches, Sunderland have re-found their mojo. And, after the November blip, it finally feels like Sunderland are back on track, and relishing their football once again.