There is no doubt that Friday night’s game will live long in the memory, and for all the right reasons.
Without being disrespectful, it makes the trips to the likes of AFC Wimbledon, Gillingham and Shrewsbury all the more worthwhile, when you get to witness spectacles such as the first leg of this playoff semi-final.
Words such as ‘raucous’, ‘deafening’, ‘intimidating’ and ‘intense’ have all been used to describe the atmosphere that fans created against Sheffield Wednesday. It was a real honour to be there, it showcased exactly what this club can do with the full backing of the crowd, and hopefully, it is something we will see much more of in the future.
We all know that we have the fanbase, the infrastructure and the raw materials needed to create a pathway back to the top flight, but one position which we have often struggled to get right is the manager, or the head coach, as he is know known.
Alex Neil continues to impress me, and Friday’s match provided more evidence of the impact he has had. There is consistency in the way he sets the team up, and in the way he speaks before games. He is assured, intelligent and self-confident, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which is clear to anyone who watches his entertaining press conferences!
During his relatively short time at the club, the defensive side of our game has been completely revamped and reinvigorated. Since his first game in charge, Sunderland have conceded a mere ten goals in 16 games. This is in comparison to the 27 conceded in the previous 16 games before his appointment.
As has been written about previously, Neil clearly understood that the defence had to be shored up if we wanted to have any chance of getting promoted, and in the duo of Bailey Wright and Danny Batth, he has constructed a very reliable partnership.
In recent weeks and months, Wright in particular has been as solid as a rock, and it is extremely hard not to love his approach to the game.
The rugged Australian looks and accent aside, he is a genuine old-school defender who goes about his business with minimal fuss and takes no prisoners. He is the kind of defender who simply loves to defend and takes pride in putting a tackle in and winning the ball back.
I have watched him in the flesh many times this season, and it is clear why he has often been selected as captain of the teams he plays for. He is a natural leader- vociferous, and always encouraging the players around him.
During Friday’s game, Wright headed, tackled and cleared every ball that came his way, taking control of the game from a defensive perspective and leading the line well. It was evident that Saido Berahino did not relish the battle, and constantly drifted into midfield, so dominant was Wright.
If the Australian has become Sunderland’s defensive lynchpin, Danny Batth has also stepped up since his January arrival.
Batth arrived with a respectable reputation. A Championship defender for most of his career, it was seen as something of a coup for Sunderland to secure his signature. His time at the club has often been hampered by fitness-related issues, but in recent weeks, he has cemented his position as an automatic pick.
Batth is not quite as comfortable with the ball at his feet, but he shares many of Wright’s characteristics. He is physically imposing, strong in the air, and offers a wealth of experience, which is something that Alex Neil clearly values.
In Batth and Wright, you could not find a more experienced duo in the league. Between the two of them, they have played almost six hundred games in the EFL, and in our current position, it is easy to see why Neil is looking to these men to anchor the Sunderland defence.
It is rare to see a Sunderland defence that looks so assured, and we go into Monday’s game knowing exactly what needs to be done. Batth and Wright have been crucial to the upturn in performances, as well as our impressive record of keeping clean sheets. Another one of those at Hillsborough, and we are through.
Watching them play, I am reminded of previous defensive combinations that got us promoted, and one in particular, Gary Breen and Steve Caldwell from the 2004/2005 season.
With Monday’s game in mind, I have a lot of faith in our head coach and our current defensive duo that we will get the job done, and I just hope I won’t have to eat my words!