Six weeks after our glorious and unforgettable playoff final triumph, the Sunderland machine is up and running once again (to a point), as we began the preparations for our first season of Championship football in four years with a run out against Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s Scottish heavyweights.
Or at least, that’s what happened for forty five minutes, before a power cut struck, the floodlights failed, and after almost half an hour of uncertainty, the game was abandoned in somewhat farcical fashion- just as the floodlights miraculously came back on!
In some ways, it felt like a surreal memory of our years in League One. Indeed, had the theme from ‘Captain Pugwash’ started playing when the game was cut short, you might have assumed we were playing this game on the Lancashire coast, rather than the sunny shores of Portugal.
In theory, this was the start of Alex Neil’s squad, boosted by the pre-match announcement that Jack Clarke had signed on a permanent deal, getting themselves back into the swing of things, shaking off the rust, and building up their match fitness.
In the end, however, this abbreviated game against Rangers, the first of two warmup games in Portugal, only provided us with fleeting evidence of the ongoing work that is taking place behind the scenes, and not enough evidence to gain any real insight into exactly how we are shaping up.
In terms of selection, there were no real surprises, with many of Neil’s go-to players in the starting eleven, and it was good to see Daniel Ballard pitched straight into our defence. Ballard, a rugged and strapping player, needs to get himself swiftly attuned to Neil’s methods, and he turned in a fairly solid and encouraging performance.
Looking at the wider matchday squad, it was interesting to see quite a few players promoted from our under-23’s team and onto the bench, and had we played the game in its entirety, there would doubtless have been wholesale changes made for the second half, thereby giving the likes of Jack Diamond and Jay Matete a priceless opportunity to impress.
The forty five minutes’ worth of action that we actually witnessed wasn’t much to write home about. Indeed, the most notable observation you could make was just how physically fit Sunderland looked, and there was also plenty of crisp passing and sharp movement on display.
Player-wise, Patrick Roberts looked lively, and challenged Jon McLaughlin with a well-struck shot following a Ross Stewart layoff, and Alex Pritchard showed some of his trademark composure and class on the ball. Dan Neil also impressed in flashes, although there was a noticeable hesitancy to his game at times.
The only goal of the ‘game’ came from a set piece, when the ball was flicked on before falling to O’Nien, who thumped a shot into the roof from ten yards to give us a deserved lead.
Rangers, in contrast, looked lethargic and decidedly lacking in any real spark, and you would certainly have backed Sunderland to add at least two or three more goals to their tally if the match had been played to a conclusion.
So, with the on-field action being cut short, what else could we take away from this encounter?
The lack of new signings in the squad was glaring, but such has been the low-key and drama-free nature of our business thus far, it feels like a very safe bet that new faces will be added soon. What we learned in that regard was nothing new- there is a core of a solid enough team here, but quality is undoubtedly needed in several positions.
With a game against Jose Mourinho’s Roma on Wednesday (wryly highlighted on social media as ‘The Special One versus Mourinho’) an even stiffer test awaits, and Neil will certainly be hoping that his players can get a full ninety minutes into their legs this time.
The bizarre kickoff time of 11:00am might result in a reduced audience, but after the shenanigans of Saturday night, it is an excellent chance to really get up and running against a top-class opponent. This trip might have kicked off with a bit of a false start, but a solid effort on Wednesday should give us a much clearer indication of how the land currently lies.