The Alex Neil era at Sunderland began with a 1-1 draw against AFC Wimbledon on Saturday afternoon at the Plough Lane in Sky Bet League One.
The draw ended Sunderland’s three-match losing streak but hasn’t kick-started a late automatic promotion push.
Alex Neil’s new side had found themselves one-goal down with 20 minutes on the clock, through a controversial Luke McCormick penalty, but in a half where Sunderland rarely threatened, Alex Pritchard’s superb free-kick levelled the match before half-time.
It was a scrappy and feisty second half where neither side really took control of the contest for a sustainable period, as McCormick’s red card in the latter stages of the match proved to be the half’s only decisive moment.
In the starting line-up there was an immediate switch in system for Alex Neil, as he altered the formation to a 4-3-3, with Carl Winchester and Dan Neil returning to the midfield line-up. Bailey Wright also came back into the starting 11, as he took the space of Danny Batth, and the captain’s armband alongside.
Whilst it was a strong start in the opening stages from the Black Cats, Alex Neil’s side struggled to create anything meaningful as it was the home side that looked more dangerous in the attacking areas.
Ethan Chislett’s shot arrowed narrowly wide of the left post, but apart from that effort, Sunderland maintained plenty of the possession levels.
Wimbledon were more than happy to soak up the possession in their own defensive third, and with just less than 20 minutes on the clock, Mark Robinson’s side were controversially given a chance to take the lead themselves.
After Doyle was adjudged to have handled the ball from close range, Luke McCormick comfortably powered the ball straight down the centre to give the home side the one-goal advantage.
Wimbledon began to dominate in the immediate aftermath and searched for a quick-fire second, and almost found themselves two-up.
Lee Brown’s corner was initially cleared by Anthony Patterson, before Scott Cosgrove’s rebound effort was scrambled away through a great save from the Sunderland goalkeeper.
The Black Cats were forced to ride a period of intense Wimbledon pressure and were fortunate not to have found themselves further behind, but thanks to a magnificent reflex save from Patterson to McCormick’s arrowing effort, when Pritchard stepped up to take a free-kick only minutes later, the opportunity to level the match was opened.
And it was an opportunity that Pritchard snatched: a superb free-kick from around 25 yards out dipped into the top right corner.
Pritchard (infiltrated the home end) ⬛ pic.twitter.com/35k7sl5OnJ— Eddy Bamber (@EdBamber) February 12, 2022
It brought Sunderland right back into the contest, and before the interval, searched for a second, but it was their opponents who came the closest and went into the half-time break looking the more positive out of the two sides - Lee Brown’s dangerous free-kick drawing a decent save from Patterson.
After the interval, there was a clear step-up in tempo from the away side, and looked more threatening and creative in attacking areas.
Ross Stewart probably should have made it two-one to the Black Cats, as Pritchard broke forward, before feeding the Sunderland striker, who hesitated, and Paul Osew retrieved the ball from the striker at the important moment.
It was slowly turning into a scrappy affair between the two sides, as it was looking increasingly likely that the third goal in the match would prove to be the winning one.
The introduction of Jermain Defoe added Sunderland a different dimension to their attacking play, but as the clock ticked down, it was looking like AFC Wimbledon were the most likely to take the three points.
Buoyed on by a rowdy home backing, they were seeming to be controlling the latter stages of the contest, as Ayoub Assal’s shot from a tight angle was fired against the side-netting before Assal tried his luck again, but this time, his effort from just outside of the penalty area was beaten away by Patterson.
But, just as it was looking like it was Wimbledon’s to take, the pendulum swung in the direction of Sunderland, as Cirkin’s cut-back found Matete, who unfortunately couldn’t keep his effort down, and he sent it over the bar.
And, in an additional five minutes, neither side pushed for the winner, as Luke McCormick’s red card for a lunge on Alex Pritchard proved to be the only meaningful moment as both sides took away a point.
The losing run is over finally, and a frantic and chaotic two weeks are also over, as the club looks to the future.
Alex Neil has started his reign as the club’s new head coach, but although we didn’t get the three points, there’ll be plenty that Neil knows that he needs to work on.
In a week where off-the-field issues took centre stage, it was nice to get back onto affairs on the pitch, but a lack of creativity and invention, mixed together with poor refereeing, resulted in only a point - hopefully the first of many under Neil.
It’s hard to look at how Neil wants to stamp his own style onto the football club in one match, but as the weeks progress with important matches coming up, he’ll have his time to work with the squad.
And his first week comes now. The Black Cats have a week’s lay-off before a gigantic match against MK Dons next Saturday at the Stadium of Light, where, realistically, three points have to be picked up. There’s a lot of work to do on and off the pitch before fans can believe that promotion is still possibe.