Sunderland kicked off their 2021-2022 Sky Bet League One season with an impressive 2-1 victory over Wigan Athletic at the Stadium of Light - in front of over 31,000 fans - for the first time since March 2020.
Lee Johnson’s side had to do it the hard way, as they came from behind to produce the opening day three points. Sunderland’s defensive fragilities were looking like they would cost the Black Cats again, as Gwion Edwards put the Latics ahead, but a penalty from Aiden McGeady and a simple header from Ross Stewart opened Sunderland’s points tally for the season.
With the lack of transfer activity before the opening to the season, Lee Johnson had to field both Dan Neil and Carl Winchester in the full-back roles, whilst Elliot Embleton was given an opportunity to show his capabilities in a league game after returning from Blackpool. Ross Stewart led the line, while Aiden McGeady returned to the starting 11 after missing the final pre-season match against Hull last Friday night. Callum Doyle and Corry Evans both started for Lee Johnson; the latter taking the captain’s armband.
First half action
Both teams started the game in a positive fashion, but it was the visitors who were looking more threatening in the attacking areas, with former Sunderland captain, Max Power, having an early goalbound effort being blocked by the head of his ex-teammate, Lynden Gooch.
It seemed like a goal was on the way from the Latics, and so it proved, as with 15 minutes on the clock, Wigan found room down the right and got their rewards.
After stand-in full-back Dan Neil was dragged out of position, Wigan’s new captain, Tendayi Darikwa, pulled the ball back to Will Keane, who saw his effort smash against the left post. The ball came out to Gwion Edwards, who side-footed into the top right corner for the opening goal.
In football, there is always the risk of celebrating far too early, and in Wigan’s case, setting off a flare in the away end proved very costly as Sunderland were awarded a spot-kick less than a minute later.
After finding the space for the opening goal, Darikwa’s clumsy challenge on Ross Stewart resulted in experienced referee, Robert Madley, pointing to the spot for a penalty, which McGeady convincingly slotted into the bottom left corner - sending the goalkeeper the wrong way.
Lee Johnson’s side were beginning to find their feet, and Flanagan’s header from Embleton’s corner kick was straight into the gloves of Ben Amos.
Embleton looked like a key figure for the Black Cats in pre-season for Sunderland, and was looking to continue that feat in his opening day performance. His goal-bound shot was blocked by defender, Tom Pearce, as a frenetic opening 45 drew to a close.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 1-1 Wigan Athletic
Second half action
As the second half began, Sunderland continued their impressive display after the first goal and found their reward only eight minutes after the restart.
After all of the hard work from the Black Cats to try and carve open the Wigan defence, it was a simple route to the third goal, as Stewart’s effortless glancing header from Embleton’s corner was planted into the bottom left corner to give the home side a deserved lead.
Shortly after, Lynden Gooch carved out a brilliant opportunity to double Sunderland’s advantage in impressive circumstances, as his shot from just outside of the area crashed back against the underside of the crossbar.
Back on his return to the North East, Charlie Wyke was looking to show his former club what they were missing out on, but he was unable to etch his name onto the scoresheet, as his best chance came when Edwards’ cross was diverted over the bar by the striker.
With both Aiden O’Brien and Jack Diamond coming onto the field for the home side, the aim was to try and stretch the Wigan, while also remaining solid in defence – and so it proved, as Sunderland kept the away side’s chances to a minimum.
Nervy moments in the final stages of stoppage time were weathered, as Wigan were unable to convert possession into chances, and Sunderland opened their fourth successive League One season with three points.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 2-1 Wigan Athletic
And so it begins.
Yet again, for the next 10 months, all of our emotions and attention will be focused solely on the highs and lows of supporting the Black Cats both home and away.
A new Sky Bet League One season is now underway and for the fourth time, Sunderland hope that this is their last.
If Saturday is anything to go by, the future bodes well for this set of Sunderland players, even if more reinforcements are required in what is set to be a hectic final few weeks of the window.
But for now, the focus will be solely on the pitch, as Lee Johnson’s side harnessed the atmosphere of the crowd to come from behind against Wigan Athletic.
It proved to be a rotten return to Wearside for Charlie Wyke, Jordan Jones and Max Power - even if after 15 minutes, the latter thought that it may have been a smug ‘homecoming’.
For the likes of Jordan Jones who was part of the squad last season, it seems a shame that they didn’t experience the Stadium of Light crowd on a weekly basis, because if anything, the crowd on Saturday showed just how it can play a part in a fixture.
However, for such brilliant support, the fans always need something to back, and at the weekend, Lee Johnson’s side sent the 31,549 fans home very happy with a strong start to the new season.
All in all, it proved to be an afternoon where the Black Cats showed both their positive and negative aspects and the fans’ nerves were shredded during the latter stages of the contest.
Despite missing out a chunk of pre-season, Lynden Gooch produced a man-of-the-match performance, in both the attacking positions, and even the defensive side of his game, due to the injury to Carl Winchester, in the final stages of the match.
Ross Stewart outshone Charlie Wyke in the battle of the strikers, as a simple header turned into the winner for the Black Cats.
Yes, a League One season is a marathon not a sprint, but the first win on the board always helps and the style that it eventually came in has to be something for Lee Johnson to be impressed and pleased with.
For now, focus for Johnson will turn to Port Vale on Tuesday night, as the EFL Cup campaign begins, with more fitness being provided with the objective of also reaching the second round against League Two opposition.
However, in League One, an impressive opening day display has increased the confidence around Wearside, despite the lack of transfers.
So, it’s one down and 45 more to go.