A return to Lancashire to renew acquaintances with a team with whom we regularly crossed swords during our League One years, but this time, it was a non-competitive visit, as Alex Neil took his Sunderland team to the Wham Stadium to face Accrington.
In recent seasons, games such as this were often a grind, but with Championship football to look forward to, this was another interesting chance to see how the Lads were continuing their build-up to the new league season.
On the day, Neil’s team selection felt far closer to the kind of starting XI that will line up against Coventry next Sunday, and with Alex Pritchard, Patrick Roberts and Ross Stewart restored to the team, the gaffer was clearly ensuring that continuity is established ahead of the curtain-raiser.
On the other hand, it didn’t tell us anything new: numbers and quality are certainly needed in key areas, and it may be some time before we get a true picture of how the squad is shaping up. In that sense, one or two new signings over the next seven days would certainly give everyone a lift.
In the early stages, Sunderland were quite scrappy in their play and unable to get anything going. Accrington, meanwhile, had the upper hand, with some useful crosses being aimed into the Sunderland box, but finding the impressive figure of Daniel Ballard there to clear them.
At the other end, Stewart had a chance to open the scoring from an accurate pass from Roberts, but the big Scot flashed a shot just wide.
Audible on the stream as the half wore on was Alex Neil’s continuous touchline cajoling and encouragement, as few Sunderland players escaped a verbal jab from the boss, and it slowly started to take effect. The likes of Jack Clarke started to see more of the ball, and a marauding Ballard curled a shot wide of the post after some neat build-up play.
As the pressure continued to build, we soon had a hat-trick of gilt-edged opportunities to score.
Stewart’s shot was parried, Clarke’s follow-up was brilliantly saved, and Roberts skied the third attempt. Frustrating, but we were now exerting sustained pressure, with plenty of crisp play in and around the home penalty area. Shortly afterwards, a curling shot from Roberts was tipped neatly over the bar by Lukas Jensen, who by this stage was almost acting as a one-man defence for the home side.
We certainly were ending the half as the stronger of the two sides, and the breakthrough came just before half time.
Clarke was bulldozed inside the Accrington box, and Stewart stroked home the ensuing penalty. It was a welcome boost as the first half ended, and it was good to see the big striker open his account in such a composed fashion. It had been a good first half, but we had often been slightly too frantic in our determination to score.
Early in the second half, a couple of decent openings were fashioned down the right hand side. A deep cross from Gooch was eventually scrambled clear after Corry Evans couldn’t capitalise, and a whipped shot from Roberts flew wide. There was also an excellent effort from Pritchard, whose long-range free kick was palmed to safety from Jensen.
Unfortunately, and despite the promise shown by the Lads, there was a sting in the tail at sixty minutes.
Bailey Wright inexplicably dithered on the ball, was dispossessed, and hauled down his man, resulting in a penalty that was duly dispatched by Sean McConville. 1-1, and after an incident that was totally avoidable, the game was level.
Fifteen minutes later, things got even worse, as a scramble in the Accrington box, coupled with some unforgivably soft defending from Luke O’Nien, led to Korede Adedoyin giving John Coleman’s side a lead that they would never relinquish. Sunderland didn’t roll over, but they seldom threatened during the final stages, and Stanley were able to see things out reasonably comfortably.
Very much a mixed bag, in summary.
Some decent signs at times, and some good chances created (as well as some gloriously wry and no-nonsense co-commentary from Lee Howey), but two extremely slack moments in defence, and some wastefulness in front of goal will certainly have been met with annoyance by Neil.
He will certainly have seen this as a worthwhile exercise, and if the old maxim is to be believed, you’d rather we got these mistakes out of the way at this stage instead of when the real action kicks off next weekend.