A gritty performance, a nervy night, but ultimately, the victory that we all hoped for.
Sunderland’s Friday night trip to St Andrews could’ve been another potentially disappointing one, but on a night where character and resilience were displayed in abundance, Tony Mowbray and the players shook off the disappointment of Cardiff to bank another crucial win.
The pre-match sight of the shirts of talented academy graduates Chris Rigg, Zak Johnson, and Tom Watson hanging up in the dressing room did spark concerns that injuries had bitten harder than we feared, but when the starting XI as published, with Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard both restored to the team, it wasn’t anywhere near as concerning as it might’ve been.
Yes, throwing Niall Huggins back into the action after a year out was quite a gamble, but Mowbray clearly felt that needs must, and Huggins is a very promising player, too.
In contrast, Birmingham’s team was eye-catching, with ex-Sunderland loanee Dion Sanderson in defence, the talented Jobe Bellingham in midfield, and the wily duo of Scott Hogan and Troy Deeney upfront. This season, we’ve often been far more effective away from home, but this game- the final match before the World Cup break- was going to be another stiff test.
As the game began, following a delayed kickoff due to, of all reasons, a missing corner flag (no, really), the first good chance fell to us.
After a rapid counter attack, an inch-perfect Dan Neil cross was almost stabbed home by Amad, but his shot was well saved by John Ruddy. A minute later, Alex Pritchard’s free kick was fired straight into the wall, before his half-volleyed rebound was smothered by Ruddy.
At the other end, it was obvious that the lively Leandro Bacuna was targeting Huggins as a potential weakness, and we had a lucky escape shortly afterwards, as a diving header from Deeney cannoned off the crossbar and Anthony Patterson collected the rebound from Hogan.
Midway through the first half, it was all a bit laboured from the Lads. We’d been functional and reasonably well-organised, but hadn’t really managed to construct any sustained attacks. There was no lack of effort, but was it a familiar story?
However, we made the breakthrough shortly afterwards.
Some excellent work from Amad inside the Birmingham box led to Simms being played in, and he took the chance with aplomb to give us the lead. A really well-worked goal and a huge confidence boost for the often-maligned Everton loanee.
Birmingham weren’t offering much in response, but Patterson had to be alert when Hogan was played through after good work by Deeney, but he was more than equal to the task, spreading himself well to keep the score at 1-0.
That was how it remained as the half came to a close, and although we hadn’t dominated the game, we’d looked much more composed than we had against Cardiff. It was very much a ‘back to basics’ approach, and it had worked quite well.
An early chance came our way early in the second half as a fizzed cross from Jack Clarke was gathered by Ruddy, before Amad stole the show with a moment of stunning quality.
He picked up the ball just inside the Birmingham half and drove forward before shifting the ball in an instant and curling a delicious finish beyond a helpless Ruddy, to the delight of the travelling fans behind the goal.
It showed the Man United loanee at his best, as well as the potential of our attacking play, and was a goal that lit up the game like a firework.
At 2-0, we’d worked ourselves into a position of real strength, and what was needed was composure, patience, and discipline. However, when Lukas Jutkiewicz buried a well-taken strike on seventy eight minutes after some poor play from Bailey Wright, the old worries about game management started to stir again.
On this occasion, though, it was a different outcome, as we ran the clock down wherever possible, slowed the tempo down, threw bodies into the path of shots, and did everything we could to ensure that the win wasn’t thrown away.
At full-time, the reactions from the players, fans, and Mowbray himself told a story.
As a reaction to a dismal performance and result last weekend, this was truly superb, and it demonstrated that team spirit is strong, and this group of players do have the ability to navigate through adversity when needed.
When the league recommences after the World Cup, and Mowbray can choose from a fully-fit squad, there is no reason why progress can’t continue to be made. We’re doing just fine right now, and there’s so much more to come!