Do you remember Sunderland’s 3-2 victory away at West Brom early in the 1998/1999 season? That day, we fell 2-0 behind, before clawing our way back to 2-2, and then winning the game with a thumping volley, on the swivel, from Kevin Ball, in a moment that seemed entirely fitting.
Fast forward to 2022, and there is little doubt that a sprinkling of that never-say-attitude wouldn’t go amiss for the current crop of Sunderland players, especially after recent results.
The Wycombe game, during which we snatched a draw from the jaws of victory, was a sickener, without a doubt, and I’m absolutely certain that it played a part in last Tuesday’s witless defeat against a Chris Maguire-inspired Lincoln. Close out the game at Adams Park, and we would’ve headed into the Lincoln game on a real high, which might well have propelled us to victory. Ifs, buts and maybes.
Saturday’s draw against Accrington, in which we dropped two crucial points against ten men, did little to stabilise things, and this weekend, we are eyeing up a home game against Portsmouth, a fixture that rarely passes without incident & has been something of a banana skin for us since 2018.
The question at the forefront of my mind is: does this Sunderland team, a team of ample skill & dynamism, possess the mental fortitude that will be so heavily relied upon as thoughts of the home straight and the final dash towards promotion begin to appear on the horizon?
During our time in League One, one accusation that has regularly been thrown at our players (often somewhat harshly, in my view) is that they are ‘bottlers’ who lack the spine to see the job through.
Occasionally, this argument may have had some merit, when we have become embroiled in kamikaze games, such as Coventry at in 2019, or at Portsmouth away earlier this season, where we failed to adapt to the conditions, and sank without a trace on a sodden Fratton Park pitch.
On such occasions, a soft centre has certainly been exposed, leading to things rapidly falling apart and an incredibly messy aftermath.
The one thing that can rarely be thrown at this squad is that it lacks effort, and a huge positive of last summer’s overhaul is that we brought in players who weren’t associated with or scarred by previous failures, and would therefore start with a clean slate.
If we are to finish in one of those much-coveted automatic promotion positions, every component of the machine needs to be working, from picking the right pass at the right time, to being capable of navigating our way through moments in games where absolute clarity of thought is needed.
The final moments of the game against Wycombe were a classic example of where you need your figureheads to take control and say ‘We aren’t losing this game, lads. Let’s do what we need to in order to win it’.
That we failed to defend the corner was a result of a lapse in concentration and hazy thinking at an absolutely crucial moment. Indecision in football can often be game-changing, and the difference between elation and dejection can come down to one botched clearance or a split-second decision.
This is not a new issue. The question of resilience appeared starkly when we lost heavily to Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday in consecutive matches in October. At the time, the concern was that if we were prone to such collapses at an early stage, how would we handle it during the notoriously-tense March/April/May period?
For someone like Callum Doyle, such experiences would’ve been a chastening experience. How do you learn? How do you adapt? Do you let it impact you negatively or can you move on, and use the negativity to drive you forward?
Fortunately, we rebuilt things afterwards, and in the weeks that followed, we appeared to have learned those lessons. Recently, however, it is obvious that the scars have not healed entirely. It is not yet a terminal issue, but it is one that is threatening to hinder us significantly.
The Lincoln game demonstrated that we do often play our football on something of a tightrope - brilliant when it all comes together, but alarmingly poor when it doesn’t. Early-season, there were mutterings that our style wouldn’t lead to many draws, and that has been proven right. It certainly makes for exciting matches, but sometimes, a middle-ground is needed. What would we all give for a nice, routine 2-0 or 3-0, where the game is reasonably forgettable, but the result absolutely crucial?
How much of this is attributable to the manager is an ongoing issue.
Lee Johnson can prepare his players to the Nth degree, but ultimately, he is at the mercy of whether they can apply the training ground methods during games. It is the eternal conundrum that every manager faces, and key errors in recent games must’ve been a source of immense frustration to Johnson.
Promotion will be achieved through a combination of silk and steel. We possess the former in abundance, but sharper edges and a tougher mentality are certainly needed for what will be a fraught second half of the season.