At half time on Saturday afternoon, as Sunderland headed for the dressing room after forty five minutes of physical interrogation by Millwall’s team of monsters, did any of the 37,000 home supporters envision that a 3-0 home victory would be the eventual outcome?
We’d been under some intense physical pressure at the hands of Gary Rowett’s side, and it felt as though any win, let alone a three-goal victory, would be very hard-earned.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened, as goals from Amad, Alex Pritchard and Ellis Simms ensured that we restarted our league campaign on a positive note. The momentum generated by an excellent away victory over Birmingham was maintained, and we edged ourselves ever closer to the playoff places into the bargain.
Make no mistake: this was a significant victory for us.
Millwall are an established and useful team in this division, and given our less-than-stellar home record during 2022/2023, kicking off the December schedule with a victory should give everyone a huge lift after being in a state of limbo since the Birmingham game.
Pre-match, Mowbray shuffled his pack, as Luke O’Nien, Lynden Gooch, and the much-missed Aji Alese returned to the team, but after the layoff, it should’ve come as no surprise that we struggled to find our rhythm in the first half.
After three weeks without a competitive game, the Lads were clearly rusty, and combined with an approach from the visitors that seemed to rely solely on blunt force and as little subtlety as you would’ve expected, the first half was a tale of frustration.
Little came off for us in the early exchanges, as passes went astray and there was very little cohesion. Combined with the litany of niggly fouls and stoppages in play, we quickly found ourselves getting bogged down in a physical duel- something that doesn’t really suit us.
However, the break clearly brought some kind of epiphany for the players, quite possibly brought about by some stern words from Mowbray.
Perhaps they simply realised that trying to outmuscle the visitors was a fool’s errand, and that playing our natural game was more likely to yield results. The ability to solve these kinds of problems is absolutely crucial, and it feels as though we’re finally learning lessons from previous games.
As the second half began, we started to move the ball more crisply, our movement became more incisive, and our passing was much sharper. It was everything we needed, and it came at the perfect time.
Amad’s goal, a stabbed finish after some excellent work from Pritchard, was just reward for another lively performance, and the ex-Huddersfield playmaker got in on the act himself shortly afterwards, his crisply struck shot somehow evading the grasp of George Long on its way in.
At 2-0, our game management was excellent.
We controlled the tempo nicely, didn’t allow the opposition to turn the tide, and showed all of the guile that is needed to see out matches at this level. There was no panic; simply a calm and professional approach.
As the clock wound down, Simms sealed the victory in the most impudent fashion from a Patterson assist, nabbing the ball past the onrushing Long and slotting it into the empty net for 3-0.
It was just reward for the Everton loanee, and his second goal in as many matches ought to do wonders for his confidence.
The result aside, it was great to see Alese returning to the fold, and our central defensive partnership of O’Nien and Danny Batth, ostensibly a ‘makeshift’ pairing, were as reliable and solid as ever. With Dan Ballard not far from a return, Mowbray is going to have some superb defensive options at his disposal before too long, which is always a good problem to have.
With a struggling West Bromwich Albion side due on Wearside a week today, it was vital that we seized this chance to make progress towards the upper reaches of the table.
We’ve surpassed our total amount of wins from 2017/2018, and Saturday offered more proof that these lads are certainly suited to this division. Qatar might’ve been a temporary distraction, but it’s all about Sunderland once again, and it was certainly worthy the wait.