As the eighty minute mark came and went on Saturday afternoon, everything pointed towards Sunderland securing an excellent and thoroughly deserved victory in the August sunshine, and collecting three points that would’ve turned a good start to the season into a very good one.
Two goals from the ever-impressive Ross Stewart and the brilliant Ellis Simms had moved us into a position of supremacy after a first-half performance that was filled with energy, aggression and positivity, and even as the second half wore on and we began to drop deeper and deeper, the game was there to be won.
And then, in another stark example of how brutal this league can be, the game changed, as Michael Beale’s side roared back to snatch a point that was greeted raucously by the travelling fans in the upper north stand, and with a mixture of incredulity and sheer frustration from the home support.
A poorly-judged foul was conceded on the edge of our box as the Hoops broke forward, and Ilias Chair, after inexplicably grabbing Lynden Gooch by the throat, stepped up to curl an accurate free kick beyond the reach of Anthony Patterson. That set Wearside nerves jangling, as memories of late twists from the League One years suddenly came back into focus.
And then, deep into injury time, as Sunderland attempted to fend off pressure from set-pieces, QPR goalkeeper Seni Dieng nodded home an equaliser that levelled the game and punctured the sense of optimism that had been sweeping through the stadium an hour earlier.
Admittedly, we could’ve won it late on, when a shot from Elliot Embleton crashed against the crossbar and bounced to safety, but sadly, there were no last-gasp heroics this time.
From a red and white perspective, 2-2 was an undeniably sickening result, but amid the frustration and the sense of ‘what if?’ that was filtering through the crowds as we trooped away from the Stadium of Light, there were certainly some positives to be gleaned from this game.
Very few of our players have appeared overwhelmed by the challenge of the Championship, with many of them making the step up impressively, and this was evident on Saturday.
Under the stewardship of Alex Neil, they are clearly relishing the chance to showcase their ability at a higher level, and their attributes, even at this early stage, do seem well-suited to this league. After four years of third-tier sludge, it is a blessed relief to see both home and away sides genuinely having a go at the Stadium of Light, and games are no longer a chore to attend.
The likes of Corry Evans, Dan Neil and Alex Pritchard were superb on Saturday, and Simms was a threat all afternoon, his pace, strength and all-round play posing problems for QPR’s defence until his withdrawal on sixty minutes, in a move that robbed us of potent threat up front. The Everton loanee seems to have struck up a blossoming relationship with Stewart, and he looks every inch a perfect fit for us: confident, dynamic, and able to rise to the occasion when needed.
Whilst there are weaknesses that need to be addressed, none of the issues that have hindered our progress cannot be fixed. Sunderland should not struggle to create and score goals this season, and we do have some good pace in attack, which is an added bonus.
On the other hand, greater defensive solidity is needed (especially so, given the injury that looks set to rule the outstanding Dan Ballard for some time), and Jack Clarke’s performance on Saturday was also erratic, with his habit of repeatedly cutting inside, rather than dragging his man wide and whipping in a cross, coming to the fore again.
In addition, there is not a genuine surplus of strength in depth on the bench, and Kristjaan Speakman and Stuart Harvey should be working flat out to ensure that, when the window closes, Neil can field a starting eleven and bench that is good enough to maintain a standard of performance for the entirety of a game.
In these kinds of matches, particularly at home, the players must trust themselves to see the game out, and not freeze and begin to invite pressure when the full-time whistle is within touching distance. If we can break the habit of letting matches slip, and dovetail that with our undoubted attacking prowess, we can be a match for any team in the league when on form.
So far, the Championship has delivered many of the twists and turns that we expected, but Sunderland aren’t merely making up the numbers. They are here to compete and to make an impact, and hopefully, we can continue to take steps forward with every game we play.