So, after a minor wobble - albeit one that was entirely self-inflicted - Sunderland reacted well. We’re back on course, gearing up for what will be a crucial home double-header, with two games against Bolton and Cheltenham that could see us really seize the initiative as the league begins to take shape.
Despite the immense frustration of conceding two late goals and consequently dropping two points away at Fleetwood last Saturday, Tuesday evening’s victory over Wigan in the League Cup was a very strong response.
Granted, cup progress might be a bonus this season, but it also represented a great chance to purge the immense frustration that every player would doubtless have been feeling on Saturday night.
Sweeping changes were made by both teams (indeed, it was barely a shadow eleven that the home team fielded, with only one of their ex-Sunderland players, Jordan Jones, in the squad), and we rotated too, but a 2-0 victory was due reward for what was a very solid and efficient away performance.
After the Fleetwood draw, there was the usual muttering on social media about our inability to see a game out, along with suggestions that the defence was too vulnerable and too disorganised. It was sadly inevitable, but perhaps indicative of how we are feeling as a fanbase.
Every goal and every dropped point is liable to set nerves jangling, but there will undoubtedly be setbacks and jolts along the way. The true test of our promotion credentials will be how we respond to them.
Lee Johnson’s post-match deflection tactics, during which he skewered the officials and took the heat off his players, were fair enough. Despite how ‘soft’ the penalty call was, he’d have known perfectly well that the victory should’ve been secured long before the referee’s intervention, and that he perhaps erred too far onto the side of caution by seemingly attempting to shut up shop. Lesson learned, you feel.
Beyond the victory itself, Tuesday night’s victory also proved another point in emphatic fashion: after our endeavours in the summer transfer market, it is abundantly clear that, when needed, Lee Johnson can field two different starting XIs without a significant drop-off in quality.
No Carl Winchester? Niall Huggins clearly stepped up impressively.
Give Lynden Gooch the evening off? Enter Leon Dajaku, who seemingly grasped the opportunity with both hands, as well as Nathan Broadhead, who scored a superb goal that’ll do his confidence the world of good.
These players clearly made a strong case for themselves at the DW, and will surely come into Johnson’s thinking for Saturday’s game against Bolton, and with players like Dennis Cirkin improving all the time, the manager will clearly have some tough calls to make ahead of Saturday.
Having such strength in depth is a luxury that we have scarcely been able to call on in recent seasons. Previously, whenever an injury crisis arose, we would find ourselves desperately trying to patch up the squad by shoehorning players into unfamiliar positions, saying a prayer, and hoping that we could somehow navigate through games unscathed.
Those days are thankfully gone now, and there is a much more calm, rational approach being utilised. Ideally, you’d like players to be able to transition seamlessly into the team, and we are certainly heading towards that stage.
Regarding the aforementioned defence, I am absolutely certain that we can, and doubtless will, tighten up and become more streetwise as the season unfolds, but conversely, I do believe that a fixation with clean sheets, as we saw in the dying embers of Jack Ross’s tenure, is ill-advised.
This is not to advocate a ‘you score three, we’ll score four’ kind of philosophy, but as we saw during the 2006/2007 season (during which we ‘only’ kept seventeen clean sheets in forty-six league games, with 76 goals scored) you don’t necessarily have to play catenaccio-style football to achieve your ambition.
When leading, particularly away from home and in the latter stages, you need your experienced players to say, “We’ve got this, boys. No panic, no silly errors,” and hopefully we will do that more often from here on in.
There is no doubt that we are in a good place at the moment.
With two matches in front of what will doubtless be an energised SOL crowd to come, it’s a great chance to continue to build momentum and show that we can recover from blips and maintain our focus on this season’s primary target.