Since that dismal night in Shrewsbury, the performance of the lads on the pitch has been – in the main – something to behold. At last, we have something to be cheerful about.
Yes, some results have been ground out rather than smashed into row Z, but the points accumulated over the past nine weeks, and the league position we now find ourselves in, speak for themselves.
Since the game at The New Meadow, we have won ten games and drawn two of 12, thrusting us right into the automatic promotion race, and with our destiny very much in our own hands.
A number of key players have been instrumental in that run, and they receive a lot of praise and adoration. Those stars know how well they are doing, and we just wish we could be there in person showing them how much we appreciate their contribution.
The likes of Dion Sanderson, Luke O’Nien, Aiden McGeady, Charlie Wyke, Jordan Jones, Lynden Gooch and – occasionally – Chris Maguire have had rave reviews for their defensive, creative and goalscoring contributions... but as the old saying goes, “there is no “I” in team”, and they could not do what they have done without others around them chipping in – and at times chipping in a hell of a lot.
I recently found myself asking the question, what about the unsung heroes in our team who have contributed significantly to the recent success, but have likely taken less of the plaudits and euphoria?
Here are five I think fit into that bracket.
The likes of O’Nien and Sanderson have enjoyed stacks of praise for their performances and clean sheet contributions across those 14 or so games in league and cup. Rightly so, given we have seen a young on-loan defender thrust into the team due to injuries, yet instantly working so very well with the ‘Sunderland Swiss Army Knife’ O’Nien, who seems to be smashing his way through excelling at yet another position in the 11 available.
One player who has quietly done his job, and slowly gained more and more confidence, is our keeper Lee Burge.
Burge was reinstated to the team after Remi Matthews’ horror show at Shrewsbury, and since he came back into the team has only let in six goals.
Six goals, in 13 games, including the Wembley win.
When you consider the defensive injuries – and hence changes – we have gone through in front of him, and the twice a week schedule we’ve had for most of that period, as well as the risk of attack he faces thanks to some, at times, very questionable defending, it is a remarkable achievement.
They say a clean sheet can be worth an extra point at times, especially when it gets to the ‘business end’ of the season. Goal difference can be the definition of success (which for us right now has to be automatic promotion) or failure (the playoffs, or worse). I really think what Lee Burge has done deserves way more recognition than he has been afforded.
Given the amount of times he has been mentioned as a potential man of the match in recent reaction and player ratings pods, I know I’m not alone in that view.
Like Burge, Conor McLaughlin has been a real revelation this season, and especially under Lee Johnson. For such a long time we have been left wondering why an active international defender has been struggling so much in red and white, among league one opponents he should surely be able to excel around. Over this past season he has really stepped up and done his part and more, be that at right back, right wing back or right sided central defender.
I’m not sure what Johnson has done to get what he has out of players like McLaughlin, but he is now owning his position when fit, bossing his defensive duties, and showing his more than decent ball skills and ability to go forward – and he is doing so way more than in his earlier Sunderland career.
Should we go back to a three-man defence with wingbacks, which could be seen after the welcome return of Hume, I would be more than happy for the right sided centre back to be McLaughlin until the likes of Willis returns to fitness.
If that could be alongside Sanderson and the soon-to-return Bailey Wright, I can see that being an incredibly difficult proposition for all but the most talented attacking forces at League One level to overcome.
We have had so many challenges in defence this season, and they have been added to recently with McLaughlin needing a hernia treatment, but now he is back we need to recognise what he adds to the team, and make maximum use of his talents during the run in.
Much like Burge, Max Power has quietly but steadily stepped up, in respect of both his leadership role and other aspects of his general play, under Lee Johnson.
He has proved he can lead the team from defence or midfield, and can be almost as much of a utility player as O’Nien.
Among the most notable differences I have observed in Power, however, are his hunger for success, the high standards he expects as a leader and captain, and his fight for every point till the final whistle, as demonstrated in his late counter attacking goal against Oxford on Good Friday.
Of all the players in the squad, Power has had to absorb the new tactics and strategies of Johnson at the highest pace... as the skipper, he is in my view one of the most key personnel to quickly ‘get on board’ with the new ways desired by Johnson and co, to help the coach, his staff and the team to implement and adhere to our new strategies and tactics.
If the skipper doesn’t go with the coach’s new ways and means, many of the squad won’t either, and we really cannot return to the times where the gaffer does not have the whole squad behind him. Power’s leadership skills in this period have been immense, and he deserves a major pat on the back for that alone,
When you roll back the clock to the midfielder with his head hung down, who could not stop getting sent off in one previous League One season, and who visibly took a huge knock to his confidence because of that, you can only admire the fact this lad from the Wirral has come so far, and then very much led from the front.
Granted in his 113 or so appearances for us (including his loan period in 2018-19), his 12 goals could be improved upon. He has, however, led the team to their first win at Wembley in almost 50 years, and without doubt would have been happy to play anywhere on the pitch to be part of that, and indeed part of this journey we are on.
Is Power the perfect right back? No, but he will play there and he will leave every ounce of energy he has on the pitch to help the greater cause.
Does he have the same qualities in midfield as the likes of Jordan Jones or Aiden McGeady? No, he is a very different player to them.
But if we cut the arm of Max Power, I am sure we would see red and white blood flowing from the wound.
His passion for his adopted homeland is unreserved, and worn on his sleeve like a badge of honour – a badge he defends with fully refreshed ‘sh*t-housery’, as per his dugout taunting against Oxford after our third goal in stoppage time.
I for one am over the moon he is part of this trip. We cannot devalue his importance to the cause as captain of this side on such a huge stretch of top level form.
This defensive midfielder and playmaker has also contributed an immense amount to our recent surge of form since joining for an undisclosed fee in January. Whether we have been starting with Winchester and finishing with Grant Leadbitter or vice versa, or varying the use of them to suit the challenge in front of us game to game, after stepping up from the league below he has combined with his midfield compatriots to bring a real solid base we can build from.
Like many, I have had a sinking feeling in my gut when seeing an attacking side running out against us with Leadbitter in the starting 11. In games, such as the Peterborough draw, however, the calm and controlled manner in which Leadbitter ran that midfield for the majority of the game was key to the platform we held, and the point we won.
The issue is, we may not succeed in even getting an away point in certain games with Leadbitter in that role, and he cannot keep going for ever – and this is maybe where Winchester really comes in.
In one of our most composed and complete performances in this hugely encouraging run, the 2-0 win away to Portsmouth, Winchester was the guy at the hub of that midfield, who alongside Josh Scowen (who almost made this piece too, and arguably should have) really ran the show for our team.
Players like these provide the platform for Wyke, Gooch, McGeady and Jones to excel, resulting in things like Sunderland taking our first win at Fratton Park for way too many years.
There we many doubters whether Winchester had enough to make it in red and white after stepping up from League Two’s Forest Green, and the manager tried to ease those worries early by saying he is a League One or even championship player, who simply has not had his chance. He has certainly started to show that in games like Pompey away, and long may that continue.
The final unsung hero I’d like to mention is Aiden O’Brien.
While Charlie Wyke has taken all the plaudits for his huge upturn in goals (with super assist stats from McGeady) which has really driven our run up the league, we cannot ignore the contribution of other attacking players like ‘the other Aiden’.
His haul of six goals in 22 this season isn’t something that instantly catches the eye for someone touted as a useful striker, allegedly even at Championship level.
However, with his work ethic, attacking runs to drag away defenders from Wyke and others, and his occasional contribution with important goals (like the one at Bristol away, at the end of March, which gained us all three points) his contribution cannot be overlooked.
The fact that he has scored five of his six goals since Johnson started late last year bodes well for the remainder of the season too. Much like Wyke, McLaughlin and others, he clearly has something in him that the new coaching team and tactics are very much trying to expose and thrive on.
As per the other players mentioned in this piece, one thing that is abundantly clear when O’Brien gets a goal or an assist, is his delight at contributing to the cause.
His recent ‘shark’ celebration not only showed his desire to send a bit of banter to the boss... it showed that he is listening to the tactics and the messages, and when he sees them pay off, he is acknowledging them and reinforcing them to his peers on the pitch.
This only breeds broader commitment to the ideology of the coaching team, which can only be a positive thing.
Did we miss anyone out?
I could have quite easily added more to this item, as one of the most encouraging signs of this run of form and this new phase under both new owners and new coaching staff is we have stars all over the park, and on the bench.
With the focus Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and co are now putting on the Academy, that is likely to continue to improve for the U23s and younger sides too, which will only set us up so much better for the future.
To the lads who haven’t been mentioned in this item, or in other pieces in the media, my message would be quite simple: please rest assured that we are aware of the parts the whole squad are playing right now, and we appreciate every ounce of effort you are all putting in to get us back up the leagues where we belong.
Keep doing what you are doing lads. Eight more cup finals to go.