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Harrogate v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly

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Finlay’s Report: Sunderland wow at Harrogate - and Embleton shows why there’s so much hype

Sunderland would be mad to flog Elliot Embleton to Blackpool - particularly if his performance at Harrogate is anything to go by.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The Team...

The most notable change to the squad to that that drew 1-1 with York City at the LNER Community Stadium was that Luke O’Nien started his first match of pre-season in the centre of midfield, alongside new signing Corry Evans.

Both Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch were given a break from pre-season, the latter suffering from the injury sustained at York in midweek. Jack Diamond and Aiden O’Brien tried to impress Lee Johnson in their places, whilst Callum Doyle extended his partnership with Tom Flanagan in the heart of defence.

First Half Action

Despite the inclusion of Luke O’Nien in the centre of the park, it was the home side that looked the most threatening in the early stages, with Pattison unable to convert. First, he drove forward and unleashed an effort than stung the gloves of Anthony Patterson, before he lifted his shot too high.

Harrogate kept finding spaces in the Sunderland defensive line, but were unable to execute their opportunities, as the Black Cats began to exploit their higher-league status.

Harrogate v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Before they took the lead, former-Harrogate loanee Jack Diamond looked to wreak havoc onto his former teammates, as his tricky and speedy persona was causing the hosts many issues. His right-footed shot was beaten away by the Harrogate goalkeeper, but the lead wasn’t far around the corner.

Despite Sunderland looking to hang onto Elliot Embleton, rumours suggest Blackpool are interested in re-signing him, and he showed exactly why with a superb run from the half-way line which helped him to ease away from a couple of yellow shirts, before drilling the ball into the bottom right corner.

His second came shortly after as Corry Evans fed Embleton, rolling it onto his left foot, before a deflected effort looped agonisingly over the Harrogate goalkeeper.

Lee Johnson’s side began to dominate, with Jack Diamond coming even closer to a goal on his return to the EnviroVent Stadium as his shot was parried away, before Luke Armstrong nodded over after an unlikely switch-off at the back for the Black Cats.

After feeding Embleton for his second, Corry Evans came close to netting his first goal for the Black Cats, as Ross Stewart’s cut-back was arrowed inches over the crossbar by the former-Blackburn midfielder.

Sunderland’s third virtually sealed another pre-season victory for Lee Johnson’s team, with Aiden O’Brien pin-pointing a brilliant pass to carve the Harrogate backline open for Carl Winchester, who rolled the ball into the bottom right corner.

Half Time - Harrogate Town 0-3 Sunderland AFC

Second Half Action

The half-time interval saw a switch come in goal for the Black Cats, with Lee Burge being given 45 minutes to make up for his error against York on Wednesday night.

For much of the half he was left a spectator, as a lot more occurred at the opposite end of the stadium, with Ross Stewart having two early chances in the half.

First, Corry Evans slipped the ball through for the Sunderland striker, but his effort was met by the gloves of the Harrogate goalkeeper.

Another opportunity came the way of the striker shortly after as he made yet another incisive run behind the Harrogate defence, and carried the ball around the goalkeeper, but his effort was thumped off the line by a yellow shirt.

Harrogate v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The hour-mark signaled more changes for Lee Johnson, as he gave out more minutes to the youngsters who look very likely to play a part in the upcoming League One season ahead. Oliver Younger, Ellis Taylor, Benji Kimpioka and Sam Wilding all came on, with Will Grigg also being given an opportunity to challenge Ross Stewart up top for the lone striker role.

One of those changes contributed to a fourth goal for the Black Cats, as Ellis Taylor’s teasing cross into the six-yard box was palmed into the back of his own net by Mark Oxley in the Harrogate goal.

Harrogate will look to improve on their bottom-half finish in League Two last season but will need to look to create more, as their goal-scoring touch displaced them on Saturday. The closest the hosts came to scoring was when Simon Power thrashed an effort goalwards from the by-line, but it was pushed wide by Burge.

For Sunderland, it was another impressive performance in pre-season, and now Tranmere lie ahead on Tuesday night.

Full Time - Harrogate Town 0-4 Sunderland AFC

Harrogate v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Finlay’s Verdict

In August 2020, Sunderland and Harrogate met in a pre-season friendly at the Stadium of Light after one of the longest breaks away from football that either team would’ve ever had.

Now, nearly one year on, both teams met again, and there were plenty of similarities. The game was played behind closed doors, after a recommendation of the North Yorkshire Local Safety Advisory Group.

The reasons, unknown. The repercussions, massive.

So, it was back to the behind-closed-doors setting that players have been so used to, with their adaption to this portraying in the performance produced.

Arguably, it was the best performance of pre-season so far. This was a Harrogate side that responded to their promotion from the National League well last season, despite not setting the league alight.

However, on Saturday, they were taken aback by the quality that the Black Cats impose on their opposition. This includes the quality of the team spirit, but the quality of the players in particular; no more than Elliot Embleton.

If Sunderland can keep hold of the midfielder, and keep him playing to the same standard that he has been showing in pre-season, he could make a massive impact on both his career and Sunderland’s promotion prospects.

Harrogate v Sunderland - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

His awareness of his teammates around him and his want to create something, as well as many other qualities, contribute to the player that he is becoming.

Of course, the starting eleven that Lee Johnson fielded on Saturday is highly unlikely to be the complete side that will begin against Wigan Athletic in less than two weeks' time, but players like Callum Doyle and Embleton have given Johnson no reason not to start them.

Doyle yet again was spectacular at the heart of defence and has created a solid partnership with Tom Flanagan alongside him. The way in periods of the first half that he was able to control the ball and ease away from the attackers comfortably is something that has probably put him as one of the first-choice defenders.

For players that haven’t necessarily opened any eyes during pre-season so far, there still remains two opportunities to impress Lee Johnson and his team, as Sunderland head into their last week of pre-season fixtures with matches against Tranmere and Hull on Tuesday and Friday.


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