An opening-day victory, in front of an expectant crowd, and the perfect start to our 2021/2022 League One campaign. After a summer that has been interesting, to say the least, it was a nice feeling to be able to focus fully on what was going on out on the field, as opposed to the tangled web of social media.
The last time fans attended a game at the Stadium of Light in large numbers, we watched with a mixture of anger and incredulity as Mikael Mandron scored a last-minute equaliser to snatch a point for Gillingham. Thereafter, Covid struck, and the entire world was thrown off its axis.
That was eighteen long months ago, and a lot has changed since then. A new manager, a new owner, one Papa John’s Trophy in the cabinet, and a raft of new players. The changes have been sweeping, but there is much hard work still to come. Starting the season positively, therefore, was a must.
Predictably, the sub-plots for this game more or less wrote themselves. Would Max Power, Charlie Wyke, and Jordan Jones return to haunt us? Was it a given that Sunderland’s lack of full-backs would leave us brutally exposed? It certainly provided an extra dimension, as Wigan’s ‘all-in’ transfer approach went up against our more frugal method of operating.
Even a fifteen-minute delay to kickoff couldn’t dampen the pre-match enthusiasm, and as Can’t Help Falling In Love With You was played before the first whistle blew, we all felt a sense of, “Finally, we’re back”. The atmosphere was superb, and the sound of Dance of the Knights booming out over the speakers provided a familiarity that we’ve all missed.
As a spectacle, this was a thoroughly entertaining game, particularly in the early stages, as both teams ripped into each other at full-throttle, and the action was fast and furious. What was immediately apparent was Sunderland’s desire to move the ball positively and stretch Wigan wherever possible.
With the impressive Corry Evans keeping things anchored in the middle and the ultra-energetic Luke O’Nien alongside him, the platform was laid for the likes of Elliot Embleton to play a game that seemed to be much more positive in intent. Midfield mobility & creativity was a major issue for us last season, but on this evidence, we seem to have found a much better balance.
Wigan’s goal was a frustratingly sloppy one to concede, as Gwion Edwards was there to convert after the ball cannoned off the post following a neat break down the flank. Our response was instant, however, as we immediately went down the other end, where Ross Stewart won a penalty (albeit a contentious one), which was then dispatched by Aiden McGeady.
After the Hull game, during which they combined for a very smart goal, I wondered whether the Embleton/Stewart axis might be a real winner for us this season. The Scottish striker showed his worth once again as he glanced home what turned out to be the winner from an Embleton corner after slack marking from Wyke, of all people.
Several Sunderland players caught the eye on Saturday. At the back, Callum Doyle was an absolute rock and looks to have slotted in superbly and, further up the field, Lynden Gooch looked extremely lively as well.
Stewart, meanwhile, continues to embrace his role as our central striker, and seems to be improving at an impressive rate. Undoubtedly more mobile and more comfortable on the ball than Wyke, he offers more of an all-round threat, and if the supply line is strong, he could become a potent source of goals for us this season.
Ideally, I’d like to see us bring another striker, perhaps more of a poacher, to compliment him, and maybe that player will arrive before the window closes.
It was also interesting to note that, against Wigan, our makeshift full-backs, Dan Neil and Carl Winchester, didn’t struggle as badly as some had predicted, but it goes without saying that the quicker they can be freed up to move into their natural positions, the better. The ‘square pegs in round holes’ policy that we relied so heavily on last season cannot be repeated this time.
It is important to caveat this result, however, because things will definitely change over the next month. The team is still below optimum strength, and reinforcements are still needed. If Johnson’s optimistic tone in his pre-match press conference was a barometer, the makeup of the team will look different by the time the transfer window closes. That isn’t to say that the current players aren’t good enough, because many of them are, but depth will be as important as quality.
An excellent start, a morale-boosting victory, and the perfect way for Lee Johnson to mark his first game in front of a big SOL crowd. Let’s hope that we can build a good winning run off the back of it, and try to be among the early-season pacesetters over the coming weeks.