Sunderland have played some lovely football at times during 2021-22.
This was particularly the case during some of the early stages, and when the likes of Dan Neil were on the ball and players were flooding forward we were a pleasure to watch.
It seemed as if we were a threat every time we were in possession, but throughout our spell in League One the team has been accused of having a soft underbelly, and the steps taken to eradicate this are just as vital to any promotion push.
There have been several occasions where the Lads have struggled when they did not get their own way. Teams have regularly come to the Stadium of Light and attempted to spoil the game and break our rhythm, and the Portsmouth debacle in October showed just how incapable we could be of adapting to difficult conditions.
The need to ‘toughen up’ and get ‘street wise’ has been obvious therefore, but I do think we are starting to see this area of our game improve.
It seems like ages ago now, but two matches played in the weeks after the Fratton Park monsoon were encouraging.
We went a goal down and later a man down against Gillingham in our next league fixture yet dug in for the points, and a month after that endured more foul weather conditions to come out on top at Cambridge United. Both our goals at the Abbey Stadium were top class – proving that it does not have to be one or the other, but we showed a bit of grit to overcome the situation and allow that quality to come to the fore.
If we do get promoted via the Play-Offs it will probably be the big wins that fans look back on most fondly in years to come, but being able to play poorly and still come out on top will always be an important foundation upon which success is built.
The return game against Portsmouth against the Stadium of Light is a good example of this; it was an attritional afternoon on a ropey pitch during which the defence had to just head and kick anything that came their way, but the three points earned from it counted just as much as the ones gained for thrashing Sheffield Wednesday a month earlier.
From a personal point of view it helps that I don’t really care what type of football I am seeing, as long as it produces a win for Sunderland. A battle can sometimes be more satisfying even, if a little tense at the time.
Playing Ipswich Town on Wearside was a slog and it looked for a while as if the crowd was going to turn nasty, but late goals for Luke O’Nien and Aiden McGeady had the place bouncing. It took bottle to get us over the line, and that is something I will always appreciate watching.
Going down to Ipswich just before Christmas looked like one of those occasions where the weak-minded version of Sunderland could have shown up.
The hosts had just brought in a new manager and were backed by a big crowd; after falling behind just before half time I feared the worst, but to their credit the side got themselves back into the game and by full time had silenced the home support.
Not every away trip was as promising however, we’ve given up the lead to ten-man Shrewsbury Town and Accrington Stanley, and throwing away precious points to an out of form Cheltenham Town side was a real nadir.
The spectre of a former player or pantomime villain getting one over us is never far away either, and if the Lads can cut these out it will be us that ends up laughing.
Alex Neil’s first game in charge was encouraging in this respect. Although Wimbledon were another club in a bad run, they took the lead through a somewhat dubious penalty decision and suddenly turned into world-beaters.
With Bailey Wright and Anthony Patterson stepping up and looking composed under the bombardment of crosses and set pieces though, Alex Pritchard’s excellent equaliser was able to help stop the rot. Seven days later we were beaten by MK Dons but since then have looked a lot more robust and much more capable of getting things over the line.
The MK Dons match was one of the few where I thought we could hold our hands up and simply say we lost to the better side. There is usually an element of shooting ourselves in the foot, and that can wear thing after a while, but pragmatism is the name of the game under Alex Neil at the moment and sitting 11 men behind the ball against us has not proven so fruitful in recent weeks.
It has not always been pretty, but we have kept our heads, stuck to the task and got ourselves into situations where just a couple of moments of brilliance have made the difference.
A big plus for us in this sense has been the return of Luke O’Nien. Not only does he bring valuable energy he seems able to do a bit of everything – there is the workie ticket element to his game that drives those playing against him mad, but he can pop up at different ends of the pitch and contribute either with a bit of dirty work or overloading defences already struggling to cope with the numbers. I don’t know for certain, but I dare say Sunderland’s points per game ratio is a lot better when he is playing.
Often, 1-1 draws have been our undoing but in the last couple of months late goals, and good goals at that a lot of the time, have turned such scenarios into crucial victories.
To then see players give the opposition a taste of their own medicine and turn the gamesmanship on its head as we grind out the closing moments is not only funny, but is more evidence that we can win ugly should it be required.
Some of the teams in the Play-Offs can play nice football, but the ties will no doubt be cagey. From beating the eventual League One champions 3-0 on their own patch to nabbing injury time winners despite being off-colour we’ve shown we can manage both sides - no matter how we do it then, let’s just go and get the job done Lads.