I have to say I had mixed feelings going into this one.
The last time we played Blackburn we were robbed a little by poor officiating, so my first hope was that we have a better set of officials, who are happy to do their job and make better (even when difficult) decisions.
If a team beats us fair and square then there are times when us fans have to accept that the other team were better on the day. Blackburn weren’t that in mid-October, so I really wanted the lads to level things up, and they certainly did that on Boxing Day.
The starting eleven was not a million miles from what I expected when it came out an hour before kick off. With Batth likely out for up to three weeks it was my expectation that Luke O’Nien and our other Dan (Ballard) would look after the centre back berths. How they would do against a forward like Diaz was in my mind, but they were the likely best option.
With Embleton injured and out for months rather than weeks and Alex Pritchard still recovering from his injury, Mowbray had to find a way to get the midfield ticking over better than it did at Hull.
I was a little surprised to see Dan Neil feature as he was a bit flat on Humberside and seems to be hot and cold in equal measures at times, but clearly he is impressing the gaffer enough to give him another run out ahead of others who can play that role.
It left me once again wondering what Ba and Matete need to do to get a starting shirt, but their time will come too I’m sure.
Assumably as a further result of other options being limited, we reverted to the much loved wide attacking setup from last season, with Roberts and Clarke on the wings but with Amad in behind Ross Stewart up front instead of the recovering Pritchard.
Not a starting eleven I would have picked one for one, but not far from expectations, and given the injuries we have probably as good as we could do. We didn’t even have a sixth outfield sub on the bench such are our issues with squad injuries and other factors, so the selection probably sorted itself in places.
In the first half, it was a bit of a stalemate most of the time for me, though the defensive master class that was put on by O’Nien and Ballard was something we should very much acknowledge.
That first 45 display from the centre backs that was ably supported by Gooch and Cirkin as full backs totally took Brereton-Diaz out as a threat. He was a proper handful at Ewood Park but our back four made him (as well as Dack, Gallagher and Hedges) look distinctly average in front of nearly 44,000 fans at the stadium, and more via Sky TV.
Sky flashed up a graphic at half time confirming that Rovers had not had a single touch in our box across the first 45 - that is incredible against a team in the top three, who scored 2 away at Norwich only a week before Christmas to win there.
The only way Blackburn got anything in that first half, as most will agree, was through sheer luck. On 18 minutes a dead ball clearance from Ross Stewart’s head ricocheted around the box and went in off his own shoulder.
Blackburn had offered nothing, but were one up.. so, so Sunderland.
Ross rightly levelled things less than five minutes later in the first half. Looking far from a man who has recently come back from an injury that kept him out for about three months, he used his body very skillfully to shield the ball in the box and earn a penalty, which he subsequently converted with a trademark powerful shot drilled into the bottom corner.
The second half was at times a bit of a possession trade with Blackburn getting more into it, but with neither side able to craft something. Most of the decent footy was coming from our lads in my opinion though, and in a way the fact Rovers had a bit more of a go seemed to create more space for Sunderland in counter attacking terms.
With Amad’s speed of feet and intricate passing as well as the options provided by our rapid wide lads, and support from the midfield base, we looked most likely to score. Diallo was at times simply wonderful to watch but occasionally he was a fraction too quick in feet or in mind for his own players, but we can hardly criticise him for that too much!
Neil, Diallo, Roberts and Clarke all had decent attacking spells post the break (as did others such as Hume) and created chances that we probably should have converted, but a combination of a poor final pass here or a badly executed shot on the keeper there meant the credit SAFC deserved for all the craft was not rewarded. Not until stoppage time, that is, and after a couple of subs which really changed that last 15 minutes of football.
One criticism I have had for Tony since he took the reigns would be (at times) his lack of willingness to change the players and setup when we look poor. The lack of urgency in trying to win a game either through tactical amendments or the use of the bench has been one area of frustration, but for this game, he got it spot on.
As Gooch went down (with what sounds like a shot hammy) just before the 80th minute mark, Mowbray could have just settled for the point.
We had lost another senior player, we were the only team that looked likely to score (though Patterson made a great save to keep it 1-1 at one point) and sharing the spoils would have been an easy thing to do. But he didn’t.
Mowbray replaced Gooch with Bailey Wright, changed the shape and dropped Simms onto the pitch alongside Stewart and in place of Patrick Roberts. Paddy had had a decent day but didn’t quite get a breakthrough, much like most of his teammates.
We retained width by asking players to run as wing backs rather than using wingers ahead of a back four, and what a decision that was.
Just as was the case so many times last season, we got the winner in stoppage time. I remember “the limbs” very well from my away trips to the Kassam last season, and the same display of euphoria in the freezing wind down at Cambridge Utd.
These were both local away games for me when in League One, being a midlands exile, and were the type of away wins that really helped us push for Wembley.
Anyway… while the stoppage time goal against Blackburn was far from pretty, the commitment could not be knocked. Tackles from people like Hume and Ballard in the box let a ball drop to Simms. When Ballard put Ellis in, he created space with a deft touch then half toe-poked (but very much placed) the ball in the bottom corner, with the keeper unable to react despite the ball taking an age to push the net back.
I promptly jumped about three feet off the couch, woke up my snoozing wife and celebrated just like at the Kassam. Wonderful.
My man of the match - While I agree with my match ratings brethren that Ballard was immense, I have to give this award to Luke O’Nien for our win against Blackburn.
The lad isn’t even from the region but he personifies everything we are about - hard work, hard tackles and plenty sledging of his opponents on the park (and wearing out the coaches in training too). He shows the ultimate kindness off the pitch too, raising funds for the Foundation of Light, the Salvation Army and also doing all he can to support our Soup Kitchen team. What a bloke, cast from the same mould as the great Kevin Ball, which is a huge thing for me to say.
Some southerners are alright, you know. Luke certainly is. Can’t wait to see him batter Wigan’s attack in a few days. Simply cannot wait.