At the end of ninety minutes of full-blooded, full-throttle Boxing Day football, it was Sunderland who were able to celebrate another crucial home victory.
The second half debacle against West Brom two weeks ago had left many questioning exactly why we seemed incapable of constructing a winning run in front of our own supporters, but as Ellis Simms prodded us into a late lead against Blackburn and 40,000 home fans celebrated wildly, one thing couldn’t be questioned- the desire of this team to win, to compete, and to continue down the positive path they’re on.
Last week’s trip to Hull had been costly on the injury front, and so there was a great deal of interest when the team was announced at 11:30am.
The reintroduction of Patrick Roberts to the starting eleven, following his game-changing cameo against the Tigers, felt like a natural switch, and it was heartening to see Dan Ballard and Ross Stewart back in the team as well, not to mention the surprise re-emergence of Edouard Michut, who settled for a place on the bench.
From a red and white perspective, the opening exchanges were positive.
We started at a brisk pace, and it felt like a welcome return to the high-energy, aggressive pressing style that we often utilise to good effect.
There was plenty of bite in midfield, and some of the interplay between Roberts and Amad was superb. The on-loan Manchester United attacker was in superb form all game, with a classy range of tricks and flicks, and he’s certainly starting to show exactly why he was rated at £40 million by the Red Devils.
Despite the positive start, however, the opening goal was frustratingly slack.
A dangerous cross was whipped in by Tyler Morton following a Ballard foul, and the final touch was credited to the unfortunate Stewart.
Granted, the defence and Anthony Patterson didn’t cover themselves in glory, but it was a goal that was eminently avoidable, and as the travelling fans lapsed into their seventh rendition of ‘There’s Only One Alan Shearer’, there was a familiar feeling of dismay at an away side taking an early lead.
Fortunately, it didn’t last long. Barely minutes after we fell behind, Stewart was fouled in the area.
He duly got to his feet, placed the ball on the spot, and buried the penalty for his second goal in as many games. The Scot looks remarkably fresh, considering the length of time he’s been absent, and his trademark work rate and ability to bring others into play came to the fore once again.
At half time, it was level pegging, and anyone’s game.
What really caught the eye during the second half was our discipline. Blackburn offered little in the way of potent attacking threat, but they were dogged and persistent, and in the face of another sub-standard refereeing performance, we had to answer the questions that were being posed.
Encouragingly, there was no panic and no instances of players looking as though they didn’t know what was expected of them. Instead, there was a calm and composed approach, one that seemed to say ‘we’ll get our chances, so let’s be patient’.
Simms’ winning goal, a poked finish after a strong header from Ballard and a scramble in the penalty area, wasn’t his most aesthetically beautiful, but frankly, who cares?
Mowbray made the right call to bring him on, and he was in the right place at the right time to deliver what was needed.
The boss deserves immense credit for yesterday, too. He got the starting eleven and the tactics spot on, and for all of the often over-the-top criticism he’s taken, it’s only fair to praise him after results like this.
In terms of individual performances, it’s tough to speak negatively of any Sunderland player, because everyone acquitted themselves well on Monday.
Amad was a class above, Ballard and O’Nien were supreme at the back, and Stewart played like a man who’s never been away. Injuries to the likes of Alex Pritchard and Elliot Embleton have dealt us some blows, but we have the depth to cope, and that’s a huge positive.
After enjoying some welcome post-Christmas cheer, now it’s on to Wigan on Thursday.
It’s no gimme and we’ll need to earn the victory, but if we’re going to make a lasting impression on the league this season, trips to places like the DW Stadium must result in three points. Confidence should be high, and there’s no reason we can’t back up this win with another one.