Back on course, and back to winning ways.
After a largely wretched performance against Crewe last Saturday, a game from which we salvaged a thoroughly undeserved point, this was a welcome and much-needed victory for Sunderland. As the battle for the top two begins to heat up, we need to take advantage of every opportunity we are afforded to put pressure on the teams in front of us.
Almost year to the day since we were last able to attend a game in person, and against a dogged Swindon team, we did just that. It wasn’t easy, and it was downright exasperating at times, but eventually, we got there.
Make no mistake, this was a crucial three points, albeit gained in a style that was more nervy than many would’ve liked. With results largely favouring us on Tuesday night, and by taking care of our own business, we are now five points adrift of Hull with two games in hand. It really is all to play for.
Under Lee Johnson, we haven’t yet shaken off the cobwebs of inconsistency that have dogged us this season, but his ethos is beginning to have an impact, and you do get the sense that we are slowly getting there.
And yet, for long periods, this match had a feeling that was eerily similar to last week’s game against Fleetwood. Midway through the game, after a first half during which we had played some easy-on-the-eye football, albeit without registering a shot on target, there were signs of encouragement, as we flitted between a three & four-man defensive system with relative ease, but also some worryingly familiar frailties visible as well.
We were sitting too deeply & playing with more than a hint of caution, and as such, the game felt somewhat lifeless, as Swindon barely posed any threat themselves. They knew exactly what they wanted: to get out of town with a point in the bag, and were determined to frustrate us at every turn.
From a Sunderland perspective, the opening stages of the second half were almost a carbon copy of the first: lots of possession, but little cutting edge, and it wasn’t until Lynden Gooch forced a smart save out of Birmingham loanee Connal Trueman that we really began to look threatening. With Swindon showing minimal ambition, the game was there to be won, but would we be able to turn one point into three?
Eventually, it was the strength of our bench that made the difference. With Chris Maguire introduced for Jordan Jones on the hour mark, it took less than eight minutes for him to make his mark. A beautifully-placed cross into the Swindon box was met with the deftest of touches by Charlie Wyke, whose header nestled into the corner of Trueman’s goal.
Deadlock broken, anxiety eased, three points (eventually) secured.
Standout performances? Maguire added some much-needed spark to our attack when he came on, and confounded anybody who thought that his best days were behind him, and Wyke, once again, was the man to ultimately make the difference. His return of twenty four goals in all competitions this season is remarkable, and he continues to shoulder the burden of being our go-to striker superbly.
At the back, Dion Sanderson strode through the game in the effortless manner that he has made his trademark. Athletic, positionally rock-solid & supremely comfortable on the ball, this young man undoubtedly has the potential to go a long way, and you get the sense that he has developed a genuine affinity for the club since his arrival from Wolves.
On the negative side, Callum McFadzean offered further evidence that Denver Hume’s return cannot arrive quickly enough, with another desperately ragged performance at full-back, and Lynden Gooch was often guilty of running down blind alleys & overlooking easy passes. He simply must refine his game, and he needs to do it quickly.
The big question, moving forward, concerns our ability to keep up the chase, and to hold our nerve as things become ever more fraught. It goes without saying that the quality of our performances will rise & fall accordingly as we head towards season’s end, and there will be times when the good old-fashioned qualities of resilience & desire will be tested to the limit.
Wembley glory could be ours on March 14th, but with potentially pivotal matches against Rochdale & Portsmouth to come before then, we cannot afford to lose our focus on the league. Momentum is definitely building, but keeping it going will be absolutely crucial.