Finally, after what felt like countless futile attempts, Sunderland have taken advantage of a game in hand, have catapulted themselves into the top two of League One, and furthermore, they’ve done so with a squad hit very hard by injuries.
Following Rotherham’s Boxing Day defeat at the hands of Accrington, this was a gilt-edged opportunity for us to chip away at their lead at the summit of the table. With Doncaster embroiled in a relegation battle, and our away record not being particularly stellar, it made for a curious pre-match dynamic, with a mixture of nerves, given our history when given opportunities like this, and optimism that we could finally buck the trend of slipping up in such situations.
Ahead of kick-off, the major talking point was the news we all dreaded: that the hugely influential Nathan Broadhead will be absent for three months, dealing us a big blow and certainly upping the stakes when the January transfer window opens.
This point was reinforced with the release of the starting XI, which was reasonably strong, and the bench, which was worryingly thin, albeit with the inclusion of promising young striker Will Harris and the returning Dennis Cirkin.
To that end, the demands for Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to ‘open his wallet’ will doubtless increase soon, and we certainly do need to make swift moves when 2022 arrives, but in the meantime, we had a crucial game to focus on.
The first half was frenetic & typically full-blooded, with Sunderland wasting no time in establishing a quick tempo and moving the ball incisively, with Leon Dajaku probing and stretching the home defence, Alex Pritchard always looking to create space, and Dan Neil controlling affairs beautifully.
Considering how tentative we have often been away from home, this was much closer to the standard we need to aim for, and Doncaster were struggling to establish themselves in the contest.
Sunderland’s breakthrough came early. A jinking run from Leon Dajaku was too hot for Branden Horton to handle, who tripped him for a penalty that was duly converted by Ross Stewart. The ideal start, and a fully deserved lead.
Minutes later, a free kick from Pritchard scraped the outside of the post as we continued to press with real intensity, and the former Huddersfield playmaker almost got onto the scoresheet again with a well-struck shot that was tipped around the post. As the half wore on, more chances came and went, the best of which was fired into the side netting by Neil after a good run from midfield.
As half time approached, the scoreline didn’t reflect how dominant we had been- as well as how absurdly passive Doncaster had played- and it was slightly frustrating that we weren’t two or three goals up. Fortunately, the frustration was eased when Elliot Embleton showed great technique & composure to volley us into a 2-0 lead following superb work from Pritchard.
As the second half began, we needed to continue in the same positive vein, and we didn’t have to wait long for a third goal. Gooch drove down the left wing and cut the ball back for Pritchard, who attempted an audacious flicked finish, with the ball pinging off the unlucky Ben Blythe and into the home goal for a fully-deserved 0-3 lead.
The remainder of the second half was a fairly typical exercise in seeing out a game against vastly inferior opposition, as Doncaster offered very little, and only the offside flag denied Denver Hume a goal as he burst forward to slot home.
There were plenty of positives in the wake of this game. The current form of Pritchard is an absolute joy, and he is playing at a level that sets him apart from most other attackers in this league. At the back, Callum Doyle is well on course towards rediscovering his best form, and the improving Embleton did his cause a lot of good with an eye-catching display.
The players have risen to recent challenges very well, and immense praise also has to go to Lee Johnson, as well. He has overseen a superb turnaround in form and results, and I think we can be confident that he, along with Kristjaan Speakman, will be fully ready to make swift moves in the transfer window.
Another hurdle cleared, and with ease, too. There will be tougher challenges to come, but as long as we show such professionalism, there is absolutely no reason that we cannot continue on our current path.