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Doncaster Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Injuries and Covid aside, Sunderland now have a settled side and a settled club

There’s nothing quite like a settled side playing exciting football and winning football matches - and right now, Sunderland are hitting their stride.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Whilst there were three changes at Doncaster from our adventure in the capital at Arsenal in midweek, generally, we’re picking from the same pool of fourteen players right now, with any changes tending to be enforced.

The loss of Nathan Broadhead to a hamstring injury for a minimum of three months is a huge blow, while Carl Winchester was a notable absentee at Donny after “twisting something” at the Emirates, according to Lee Johnson.

Yet despite our injury problems this season, and the continued threat of Covid, which like many other clubs is within our camp with Aiden O’Brien testing positive, a settled side has been key to our eight-game unbeaten run in League One.

It was mentioned in Sky Sports’ commentary on Monday that this was different from any other Sunderland side in recent years, with hungry, ambitious, quality young players working to a coherent system, with everyone from players to the manager and coaching staff “on the same page.”

This was clearly evident on the pitch at the Keepmoat (now the Eco-Power Stadium), just as it had been three days earlier when, even up against the might of Arsenal, we didn’t look out of place in possession and going forward against Premier League opposition.

Doncaster Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I’m not getting carried away here. I know they scored five due to their superior quality, but for a League One side (side, not club) we did ourselves proud.

Lee Johnson saw the positives of the Arsenal experience and how it could sharpen our performances in the third tier. At Doncaster, it did.

Sheffield Wednesday will be a sterner test than Doncaster, but we’re second in the table on merit, are full of confidence, will have home advantage, and have other strengths besides the free-flowing football which is catching the eye now that we’re being followed by the Sky cameras.

Bailey Wright has overcome his early-season struggles to slot seamlessly into our backline, which is finally playing with the know-how and no-nonsense approach required in such an unforgiving league. Tom Flanagan has proven he can be a rock on his day, Callum Doyle strolled through the game at Doncaster and like Wright on the other side, managed to get down the left flank to offer support going forward.

We’re flexible and interchangeable, with Corey Evans the ideal replacement for Winchester in midfield, protecting the defence and providing cover for Dan Neil to dictate the play in support of our attacking players.

In the absence of key men such as Broadhead and Aidan McGeady, it’s great to think we’ve still got Lynden Gooch, Alex Pritchard and Dajaku in support of Ross Stewart, with the latter pair playing their best football for the club at present.

Doncaster Rovers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A settled side (okay an interchangeable 14) breeds not only confidence, but also on-field partnerships and understanding. When did we last have this?

Well, it was used to great effect by Sam Allardyce when he kept us in the Premier League in 2015/16, with Lamine Kone and Younis Kaboul at the back, Jan Kirchhoff dictating the play supported by Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila, and Wahbi Khazri and Fabio Borini providing ammunition for Jermain Defoe.

But when you think about it, we’ve not seen anywhere near enough of this at Sunderland over the years. Teams like Southampton, Swansea and Bournemouth rose through the divisions with settled sides which grew and evolved together.

Throughout our decade-long stay in the Premier League, I was never truly satisfied in a footballing sense. Yes we splashed the cash at times, but we always seemed to be patching up, covering cracks with big signings and the marketing hype usually associated with such transfer business. It never lived up to its promise.

Even when the money dried up, we signed has-beens and journeymen.

Sunderland v Swansea City - Premier League Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

There never seemed to be a long term plan – which had a direct impact on the pitch.

Rarely was there a genuine sign that all the players wanted to be there, that they were on the same page as the manager/head coach and were playing to a style of football they all believed in.

Gus Poyet came close with his out from the back, possession-based play which took us to a League Cup final, but even he admitted there was something not quite right deep within the club.

Now we have unity both on and off the pitch, with a structure stemming from the owner, through the sporting director, to the head coach and so on. I’m not sure we’ve really had this since Drumaville, and even that was built on rocky foundations with a recession around the corner and a talented yet sensitive manager in Roy Keane who didn’t last long once the club was sold to Ellis Short.

We were relatively happy and unified slightly earlier in the mid-2000s, once Mick McCarthy picked the bones out of our 2003 relegation to build a successful promotion side over two seasons, but to find true happiness, both on and off the field, we have to go back to the turn of the century.

At Christmas 1997, Bob Murray had moved away from difficult times gone by to regain the full support of fans, with his brand new stadium the symbol of a bright new dawn at Sunderland. Our apparent ambition as a club had a spine-tingling impact on the pitch, as Peter Reid created a side that was a real joy to behold. Good footballing sides with overlapping full backs are all the rage now, but this team is a reminder that it wasn’t all kick and rush in English football before Pep Guardiola, Jamie Carragher’s ultra-detailed analysis and the creation of new terminology. At a recent talk in event before Christmas, Peter Reid said breaking the lines “just means finding a bit of space.”

Manchester City v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images

I’m not knocking the evolution of our beautiful game, but the knowledge of older footballing people can sometimes be underestimated simply because they don’t talk about transitions, playing through the zones, or recycling possession.

A settled side (again from a pool of 14), with established partnerships in defence, midfield, down the flanks and up front, played the best football witnessed on Wearside in years. If that team wasn’t quite tough enough to go up in 1997/98, a few tweaks to add a bit of bite and experience ensured we won the league emphatically a year later.

This article is not meant to be a trip down memory lane at Christmas, it’s about the need for a settled team and a settled club.

Long may our unity remain this season and beyond. Long may our structured approach take us back up the leagues. For years we have craved the direction we now seem to have. Let’s hope we can finally move forward and fulfil our vast potential, moving on from years of dysfunctional existence and at times, disharmony.

We won’t win every game, but as I’ve said before this season, get behind and stick with Lee Johnson and this exciting young team as it strives to get us out of League One.

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