Sunderland’s performance on Saturday at Crewe probably taught Lee Johnson a lot more about his players than in any other game since he took the job.
We were rotten in that first hour or so – absolutely terrible. Johnson said himself – rather honestly after the game – that he felt he could have made five changes after 20 minutes because of how poor some of his players were.
Then, he made four substitutions around an hour into the game (and another when Leadbitter got injured) and things swung back in our favour. They do say that if you throw enough shit, eventually some of it will stick. Poor analogy, probably, but Johnson once again showed that risks are worth taking when you have fuck all to lose, and the quality we have in the squad is enough to get us over the line, more often than not.
The first half was particularly dreadful – Johnson will have seen a lull in energy from a group of players that has, in fairness, largely had to play every minute of every game two times a week. It’s perhaps to Johnson’s credit though that he appears to be keeping players outside of the starting 11 hungry and motivated, which is why they won us the point.
It’s no secret that the club actively looked to move Chris Maguire on in the January window, but he didn’t want to leave and instead chose to stay and fight for his spot. The biggest thing baffling my own dad at the minute is the reasons for not playing Maguire, and while I’ve generally argued in support of Johnson on this one – I’m not really sure where Maguire fits into his side, given he’s playing with two touchline-hugging wingers – I think we saw why Maguire is a player worth persisting with. You’d be foolish to write the lad off.
Time after time he comes up with an important goal in an important game – he’s got that bit of crazy in him that every so often thinks “fuck it... why not shoot from here?”, and bang, just like that, he catches the keeper off guard and it’s in the back of the net.
That’s the best way a player can show a manager what they’re made of – to come up with the goods at a crucial moment in the game. Maguire’s started only once for Johnson and that was in the very first game he took charge of, against Wigan.
Despite the fact we have a number of good players contending for a spot in the team, I think that I’d sooner see Maguire starting games than sticking with Gooch and O’Brien, who are clearly favourites of the manager given they play more often than not when fit.
I have nothing against either of them – they work really hard and give it their all – but they don’t have anywhere near the same amount of quality that some of the lads they’re keeping out of the team do. Not on a consistent basis, anyway. Gooch scored a cracker at Burton but he frustrates me with how much he wastes the ball, and O’Brien just doesn’t do enough beyond running lots and charging down defenders when they have possession.
Another who impressed, Jordan Jones, was pretty humble in his assessment of the game afterward – he admitted that he can hardly complain about not playing given McGeady is in the form of his life – but I can’t help but feel like we’re missing a trick by not starting him now. Every single time he comes on the pitch he looks a level above. He’s not a League One player, and I think we’ve probably been fortunate to get him here.
Oh, and I feel bad for even saying this, but Leadbitter’s injury could be a blessing in disguise. He’s a good player but I’m concerned that we’re over-reliant on him and that he slows us down too much – through no fault of his own, of course.
His injury forces Johnson into being more adventurous with his central midfield selection, and it gives Carl Winchester and Dan Neil a proper chance to get some first team starts. I’m not saying that either of them are better players than Leadbitter but they are younger and more energetic, and sometimes that’s all you need at this level.
Johnson said something after the game about how “hard work beats quality when quality doesn’t work hard”, and he couldn’t be more right.
That’s why Sunderland have struggled to navigate a way out of this league for three years, despite possessing a far stronger squad than any other team at this level in that time. And I sort of relate that quote to the situation with Leadbitter, in that while he’s a quality player, he just doesn’t have the legs to charge around the pitch and play with high intensity in the way that maybe Dan Neil or Carl Winchester can.
Ultimately, the performance of the team as a whole can act as a reminder that we mustn’t get complacent. Looking at the table, our fate still remains very much in our own destiny, but only a run of form akin to what you’d expect from the team top of the table will see us overtake the other sides around us.
We’re fifth, but second spot is up for grabs – we can afford to drop the odd point or two here and there, but only if we win the vast majority of our games.
Crucially, we must win the games against teams fighting against us at the top end, and while I don’t want to look beyond the next game, we play Pompey in just over a week - and that could be absolutely massive.
Ideally I’d like to be above them by the time we take them on.
But, we mustn’t get too carried away. The Crewe game not only showed the manager that he’s got players pushing for starts that really now deserve to be playing, but that this team has the fight and desire to pull a couple of worldie goals out of their collective arses to rescue us points, and that’s going to be key.
I’ve banged on about this non-stop for months, but this squad is more than good enough to get promoted. It was always going to be about adjusting the mentality of the group and getting them to believe that they can do this. Right now we’re underdogs and, as the comments of the Crewe manager after the game showed, teams in this league look down their noses at us because we were once in the Premier League.
That should stick in the throat of our players and our manager every single day that we remain in this hell-hole of a division. We should use it to motivate ourselves to go out there every single day in training and in every single game and focus at the very attainable task at hand – promotion.
I’m starting to believe that we can do it. Care to join me on the magic carpet ride?