For those of us without the holiday allowance or the bank balance to stretch to a visit to Portugal, Saturday represented the first chance to watch the Lads since the play-off final.
Dundee initially looked like being a canny away day for it too, but with a host of train cancellations affecting plans and the ongoing Open tournament at nearby St Andrews causing hotel prices to rocket, it soon became clear that getting back in the saddle would be a little more complicated than normal.
With driving there and back in a day the only real viable option left, the chances of exploring or having a few beers were slim, but after a slog up the A1 we still managed to arrive in reasonable time and enjoyed what little we did get to see of the place. Tannadice Park was exactly as I imagined it too, displaying all the quaintness you would expect from a ‘proper’ football ground. It might not be Wembley, but it had its own charm all the same.
The comparisons with Roker Park were obvious, even more so at neighbouring Dens Park, and those that had made it to Scotland were mixing freely with the home fans outside both stadiums before kick-off, swapping opinions on Jack Ross and looking ahead to the coming season. The supporters housed underneath the low roof behind the goal made plenty of noise too, and were in fine voice as the Lads enjoyed the better start.
Sunderland’s attacking options at the moment (with the exception of centre forward) are really strong, with the side able to steal possession on several occasions and move the ball quickly. There were a couple of instances where it would have been good to see them pull the trigger a bit sooner or play in a teammate instead, but there was still plenty to be positive about going forward. Things tailed off before half time admittedly, but even then, Patrick Roberts was still able to carve out a great opening for Ross Stewart.
What is more pleasing, however, is the fact Alex Neil seems to have managed to get the balance right again. Towards the end of last season the defence was super solid, and the signs are that this will be the case again in 2022-23. Sunderland looked strong, organised and crucially, as comfortable on the ball in the defensive third of the pitch as the likes of Alex Pritchard were further up.
The second half started in a lively fashion with both sides going close – home goalkeeper Caljohan ‘Saku’ Eriksson doing brilliantly to deny Dan Neil. Sunderland saw several good individual performances, and Neil was one of those to impress, as was Trai Hume. It was Hume that opened the scoring soon after, heading home after Saku had only partially reached a Dennis Cirkin cross.
Despite playing a flat back four, both full-backs had looked to get forward where possible, although with Ross making changes, Sunderland found themselves in more defensive mode from then on. Mathew Cudjoe looked particularly energetic down the hosts’ right-hand side, although it was from that part of the pitch that we made it 2-0 just after the hour mark.
There was a large comedic element to Charlie Mulgrew’s gift of an own goal, although Stewart should be credited for once again trying to close the defender down and keep him honest. Things got bitty after that, but the Lads did still show some good touches and could have perhaps scored more.
The Tangerines had some more opportunities, too, and there were times when Neil’s men had to dig deep to keep their clean sheet. Barely 24 hours before, fans had barely heard of Aji Alese let alone seen him linked with a move to Wearside, but he won a couple of headers after being introduced while alongside him Daniel Ballard continued his fine form despite now being the senior man in the centre of defence. Anthony Patterson was assured too and looks well settled in goal, although without any senior backup at the club, it may be the case that Jacob Carney is given some minutes in the coming fortnight just in case he needs to be called upon once the real action starts.
His chance could well come on Tuesday night at Bradford City, which, if nothing else, will be a lot easier to get to for the Red and White Army. The trip to Tayside was still worth it though because the early glimpses continue to encourage.
Dundee may be a long way from Wembley, but it witnessed another deserved 2-0 win – and Sunderland are heading in the right direction.
My man of the match: Daniel Ballard. Strong in his one-on-one battles and kicked or headed anything that came near him – and showed plenty of composure as well.