In one episode of the legendary Premier Passions documentary, there is a scene in which a visibly frustrated Peter Reid is doing his best to relay instructions to his players from the touchline, as we struggle at home to Nottingham Forest in a crucial game at the foot of the table.
Starting off by imploring Paul Bracewell and others to ‘relax and pass the ball’, he then repeats the following sentence three times, with the final repetition containing a level of anger that not even an optimist could mistake for gentle encouragement:
‘GIVE IT TO WADDLER!!!!!!’.
In many ways, it encapsulated all of the craziness of that season. A team trying its best, guided by a manager attempting to keep his team afloat in the dog-eat-dog world of mid-1990s top flight football.
Why am I referencing this scene, do you ask?
Because, for the majority of our time in League One, one of the cornerstones of Sunderland’s football philosophy has been ‘give it to Aiden McGeady and hope for the best’.
Indeed, at various points in recent seasons, those sitting close to the SOL dugout might have heard the likes of Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson demanding that the ball was given to the Irishman with the same venom that Reid employed back in 1997.
Long hailed as the ‘best player in League One’, the ex-Celtic attacker has often had to carry the hopes of the entire team on his shoulders during our time in this division, and when frozen out by Parkinson, there was uproar, as a rift between player and manager threatened to derail things.
Upon Parkinson’s departure, McGeady was brought back into the fold by Lee Johnson, as he tried to mount a promotion challenge with a squad that wasn’t really ‘his’.
In fairness, it actually worked well, to a certain extent, as he forged a very useful partnership with Charlie Wyke that yielded 31 goals for the big striker, and gave us hope as the season headed for its climax. Ultimately, it was all in vain, however, as another playoff failure ended our promotion ambitions,
After a summer of upheaval, however, following the departure of Wyke and the injury-enforced absence of McGeady, things have evolved, and much for the better.
As last Thursday night’s ruthless demolition of Sheffield Wednesday illustrated, our football philosophy has changed from that of being reliant on the prodigious talents of one man, to an approach that harnesses the skills of a multitude of talented players, and the efficient use of space and time to launch attacking moves and bring others into play.
Seldom have Sunderland, in recent years at least, been blessed with such an exciting crop of attacking midfielders, all of whom are playing a major role in the team’s current run of form. The quartet of Alex Pritchard, Dan Neil, Elliot Embleton and Leon Dajaku is for this level an absurdly potent creative force, and one that no team in the league should look forward to facing.
Granted, this new style has been slow-burning and has taken time to yield results, but there is no doubt that it is working. The emergence of Neil and the promising signs being shown by Embleton are no real surprise, but it is great to see that all four players are really flourishing and that a player like Ross Stewart is getting the kind of service he thrives on.
Take Pritchard, for example.
When he joined the club, his pedigree was in no doubt, but when he didn’t make the immediate impact that many hoped, largely due to Covid and fitness issues, there were mutterings that we had signed a dud and that he was too physically lightweight for the division.
Then, one weekend in December, Oxford came to the SOL for a league game and Pritchard played absolutely superbly - albeit not in a winning cause - and since then he hasn’t looked back. His composure on the ball and vision becoming central to our style of play, and his work-rate off the ball ensuring that we maintain pressure out of possession.
Dajaku is another player who has benefited from the patience shown by Johnson as he adjusted to a new league and a new style of football.
Offensively he is a real threat, and there are signs that he is really becoming attuned to the way that Lee Johnson expects him to play.
Yes, he can be erratic at times but for me, his strengths outweigh his weaknesses.
At some stage we had to move away from the reliance on one player to haul us out of the mire, and we have definitely arrived at that point now. It is a source of great excitement that, during any given game, we can launch attacking moves from anywhere, and that the absence of one player is not terminal to our hopes of victory.
Ultimately, promotion is the aim and if we do have to grind results out, so be it, but it is very exciting that when everything comes together we can be a team that plays genuinely attractive, enterprising football, and can give the supporters something to look forward to when kickoff arrives.