A truly brilliant, if slightly bittersweet victory.
A performance of genuine grit, determination and ruthless desire to win, and a scoreline that at 3:00pm on Saturday seemed so improbable as to be borderline fantasy, as Alex Neil finally clocked up his first victory as Sunderland boss with this morale-boosting defeat of Wigan on their home ground.
Yes, the Latics remain well clear of Sunderland in the table and will, barring a spectacular collapse, be joining Rotherham in the Championship next season, but this was a crucial blow for us to strike. The winning feeling has finally returned, and we have to ensure that this is the start of a genuine renaissance, rather than a one-off.
To compare and contrast the emotions at the final whistle on Saturday with the feeling at 10:35pm on Tuesday night, after we scraped a draw with Burton, was night and day.
Close to 5000 fans had made the trip to Lancashire for what felt like a truly daunting assignment. They were rewarded comprehensively, however, as the Sunderland players paid them back with a performance that was always within their capability, but had not always been visible, during a truly galling eight-week period that has seen as much turbulence in the boardroom as it did on the pitch.
A reaction, therefore, was badly needed, and every player in red and white delivered, with aplomb.
Despite a good deal of much pre-match grumbling about Neil’s team selection and the system he was deploying, the Scot undoubtedly had the last laugh when the final whistle blew. Reunions with Max Power and James McClean were reduced to mere footnotes in the story of the game, as we showed the kind of savvy game management and stomach for the fight that has been glaringly absent recently.
This win, secured through a Ross Stewart double from the penalty spot, which was preceded by a Bailey Wright header with less than two minutes on the clock, ought to breathe new life into our season.
Perhaps the fact that we have been forced to revise our end-of-season goal, from an automatic promotion berth to securing a playoff place, has liberated the players and allowed them to play with greater freedom, or perhaps Neil’s training ground methods and no-nonsense management style are finally bearing fruit.
When our confidence is high, we are a match for any team in this division, and wins like this come with no real downside: everyone, players and fans alike, should be on a real high ahead of another tricky away trip next weekend.
Our opening goal, as Wright connected with an inch-perfect cross from Alex Pritchard, got us off to a perfect start, as we settled into the game with a level of organisation and resilience that felt like a throwback to the form we regularly showed at the start of the season.
Pritchard was in fine form once again, finding time and space to keep things ticking over, the defence was composed, and the industrious Lynden Gooch was doing a sterling job of keeping James McClean quiet. When Curtis Tilt upended Stewart just before half time, he made no mistake from twelve yards, to send us into the break in a commanding position.
The second half was as drama-free as anyone could’ve hoped for. There was no real Wigan backlash, no relentless attack from those in blue and white, as we were able to navigate our way through the remainder of the match impressively. Stewart’s second penalty sealed the deal, and 3-0 did not flatter us.
Granted, there was plenty of needle between the teams, but this time, Sunderland didn’t lose their composure, and there was no shirking of responsibility, either.
There were several standout performances from those in red and white on Saturday, and it is impossible to overlook the importance of Arbenit Xhemajli’s contribution to this victory.
His time on Wearside has been a catalogue of injuries, false starts, and sheer frustration, but he made up for lost time with a supremely controlled performance in defence.
Our crisis at centre-back has hindered us for a long time, but if Xhemajli can get himself a run of games, it might go some way to ensuring we can be solid at the back once again. Between the sticks, Anthony Patterson was highly impressive, going about his business with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of efficiency. A huge game for him, without a doubt.
In midfield, Jay Matete was, once again, superb. He has added genuine bite and ball-winning ability to the engine room, and looks to be settling into life in red and white with ease, while Stewart’s two-goal salvo, to add to his late equaliser against Burton, ought to be a welcome tonic for a player who had often looked somewhat frustrated in recent weeks.
It is crucially important for Sunderland to build up a head of steam over the remaining eleven matches. This was a hell of a way to start, and having waited so long to finally pocket three points, it could be an absolutely priceless victory.