With two swings of the boots of Dan Neil and Patrick Roberts, Sunderland finally ended Crewe Alexandra’s stubborn resistance and secured a second successive home victory that for seventy minutes looked unlikely - but was absolutely seismic as we seek to build momentum and establish ourselves as a form team as the season heads towards its climax.
With one defeat in seven matches Alex Neil is, so far, fulfilling the brief he was given when he arrived at the club: win games, mount a playoff charge, and to hell with the aesthetics in the process.
Those are the basic facts of Neil’s tenure so far, so why is there still a lingering sense of ‘is he the right man for the job?’
There is little doubt that, despite one or two iffy results, Neil has galvanised the team, tightened up the defence and instilled a harder-nosed attitude in the squad.
On the other hand, there is no glossing over the fact that we have often looked disjointed, particularly in the first half against Fleetwood, and his style of football is not exactly eye-catching, particularly in contrast to the enterprising stuff we often played under Lee Johnson.
It’s horses for courses, without a doubt, but Saturday was far too close for comfort yet again.
Against Crewe, who arrived on Wearside anchored to the foot of the table, Sunderland’s first-half performance was woeful.
From the first whistle, lethargy seemed to spread through the entire team at an alarming pace, no real attempts were being made to move the ball crisply on the deck, and after what felt like the seventieth aimless diagonal ball towards either Lynden Gooch, Jermain Defoe, or Ross Stewart, there were horrible echoes of Phil Parkinson’s style of play that you could barely overlook.
Crewe, in contrast, did what we all expected of them, and when the opposition goalkeeper is wasting time before taking goal kicks barely fifteen minutes in, you know exactly what their goal was: keep it tight, deny us any momentum, and get out of town without defeat.
Without the injured Alex Pritchard, we were stripped of our ability to find space, pick passes, and unlock the away defence, and it showed. Two headers were the sum total of our attacking endeavours, and it was little surprise that the boos rang out at half time.
Though it might well have been different, the second half was largely a continuation of the first, as we continued to labour without any joy. Crewe, as you would expect, continued to disrupt the flow of the game at every turn as the half wore on, and with the referee, predictably, giving us little, it felt as though this was going to be another tale of dropped points.
As the minutes ticked by, Neil showed the in-game management for which he has been feted, bringing on Patrick Roberts, Leon Dajaku, and his namesake Dan, and was duly rewarded as the dynamic of the game changed. With their introduction, the pace was quickened, our attack was sharpened up, and eventually, we got our reward.
Neil’s goal, a sweetly-struck shot from the edge of the area was a gloriously uplifting moment for everyone, on an afternoon where frustration had been the order of the day.
The young midfielder has endured a turbulent time of late, with a loss of form preceding his omission from recent starting XIs, after looking like such an exciting prospect earlier in the season.
The goal, therefore, was just reward for him, and coupled with a display that was every bit as impressive as Luke O’Nien’s against Fleetwood, should see him restored to the starting eleven for our next game.
It was also great to see Roberts get his name on the scoresheet, as well, with a well-worked goal that he dispatched emphatically into the bottom corner.
Firepower is something we don’t lack, and it is encouraging to see that he, along with fellow January signings Jay Matete & Jack Clarke, are starting to have a greater influence.
Despite the result, questions remain.
Why is Neil persisting with the woefully ineffective Corry Evans, not just in midfield, but as captain? Does Jermain Defoe still have the goalscoring prowess that was said to be one of the guarantees of bringing him back to the club? Are we likely to find the right balance between solidity and flair during the remaining games?
Next weekend, it’s Lincoln, where the Chris Maguire factor may well come into play yet again. We certainly owe them one after collapsing to a dismal home defeat against them in the dying embers of Johnson’s reign, and with the margins in the playoff race incredibly tight, it will be another game where ‘win at all costs’ has to be the order of the day.