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Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Editorial: Fleetwood draw could prove to be a watershed moment for this young Sunderland side

While not as dramatic as Reidy’s ‘Nightmare at Elm Park’, Saturday’s draw will have hurt Lee Johnson just as much – and some harsh lessons will have been learned.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Let’s make no bones about it. Saturday’s result – particularly the manner of the result – was hugely disappointing.

To be two up away from home going into the last ten minutes and to only come away with a draw is poor at any level – particularly when we want, no need, to win promotion.

Added to that it was our shortcomings, rather than the opposition’s ability, that snatched a draw from the jaws of victory, and it quickly turned a very satisfactory afternoon into an utterly frustrating one.

In the context of the season, however, it could turn out to be a pivotal game for us in more ways than one.

I’m sure we’d have all settled for five wins and a draw from the first seven fixtures at the start of the season – after all, if you win your home games and draw your away games you’ll be up there at the end of the season.

We’ve had a strong start to the campaign, but it hasn’t been perfect. We’ve been hanging on at the end of a number of games rather than controlling the last ten minutes comfortably – Wycombe was the only game we’ve really gone into the closing stages looking as if we were in control.

Fleetwood Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
A controversial injury time penalty turned three points into one
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Against Wigan, Accrington, MK Dons and Wimbledon we defended the three points and saw the game out. On Saturday the referee decided to give a penalty for a run-of-the-mill tussle that 95 times out of 100 simply isn’t given – Bailey Wright, however, needlessly gave the referee a decision to make.

Throughout the seven league games so far we’ve conceded seven and only kept one clean sheet. Some of those goals have been defensive errors – the goal at MK Dons and the two yesterday – one has been a cracker that we could do little about (the goal at Burton), another has been incredibly unlucky (Wycombe’s deflected long ranger) while the other was a well-worked set-piece (Accrington).

That doesn’t suggest to me a team with defensive problems per se – you’re going to concede goals in football games, particularly if we’re looking to attack as much as we are this season.


A ruthless streak is needed – on and off the pitch

Lee Johnson was understandably furious with the referee on Saturday, however, in many ways, it distracts from the real problem in terms of how we managed that game.

Because once again we’ve not been able to put the opposition away when we’ve been on top. With a bit more of a ruthless streak, we could have been three or four-nil up on Saturday, just as we could have been against MK Dons, Accrington and Burton particularly.

If we get the third or fourth goal, it becomes a damage limitation exercise for the opposition rather than the ‘game on’ situation which we’ve been frequently left with at 1-0 or 2-0.

Ross Stewart has been in tremendous form so far this season, but the three behind him haven’t consistently delivered – and we need them to if we’re going to put teams away.

Elliot Embleton has probably been the pick of the bunch – although he’s gone off the boil in the past couple of games. McGeady had his best game of the season at Fleetwood after a slow start, but given his age could be a better weapon from the bench, while Gooch has failed to shine after a tremendous opening game against Wigan.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Alex Pritchard will surely start in midweek – and a good performance could see him in the starting line up against Bolton
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

We’ve got real strength in depth in these positions – Pritchard, Broadhead and Dajaku will all be desperate to play, and I’d expect the three of them to start at Wigan in midweek. Strong performances will likely see one or two of them retain their places for Bolton’s visit on Saturday.

As well as being ruthless on the field, we need to be ruthless off it, too. Johnson’s already shown he’s happy to make big decisions – the sidelining of Burge and Wright are a case in point – and he’s got some other big decisions to make in the coming weeks as he strives to get the team firing on all cylinders in the final third.


Patience – the watchword of the season

When the dust settles on Saturday, we need to look at it as a decent point – which ultimately it could well prove. Yes, we threw two away, but a point keeps our tally ticking over.

More than that, though, it could prove to be a watershed moment for this young team. It’ll be a tough lesson to take, but a timely reminder of the need to be clinical and ruthless when we have teams on the ropes, and a harsh lesson that it’s not always wise to attempt to defend out a one or two-goal lead.

Overall, the team will make some mistakes during this season – their age and inexperience at League One level make that an inevitability. But it’s what we do over 46 games rather than 10 minutes that will dictate the outcome of the campaign, and where we are come May will be determined by how quickly the team learns from a very harsh lesson dished out on Saturday.

Throughout the summer, the mantra regarding transfers was ‘patience’ and ‘trust’, and that will also be the case with the team, too. We’ll need to give them a significant amount of patience – they’re going to make mistakes – and we need to trust they’ll learn from them.

For the first time in many seasons, I have the utmost confidence we will.

And, if we do, in a strange way the draw on Saturday could ultimately prove significantly more valuable than if we’d managed to hold onto all three points.

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