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Sheffield United v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Bramall Lane

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Matchday Musings: A first league defeat of the season for ten-man Sunderland

In what was undoubtedly a tricky-looking away trip, Alex Neil’s men took on Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on Wednesday night, but ultimately fell short against the class of Paul Heckingbottom’s team.

Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

A first league defeat, plenty of frustration along the way, but not a doomsday scenario and certainly not a reason to panic.

This trip to Yorkshire will not be season-defining, and nor does it provide conclusive evidence that our players aren’t good enough - but it did prove that the transition from League One to the Championship will be fraught and often challenging.

How we deal with that will be key.

Pre-match, the biggest talking point was the lack of Corry Evans’ name on the teamsheet, a player whose experience and composure in the middle would doubtless have been invaluable on such an occasion.

If Dan Ballard’s injury-enforced absence was a blow, the loss of our skipper was equally troubling, and it forced Alex Neil to field an admittedly lightweight but skilful midfield, with Sheffield United’s Sander Berge being highlighted as a potential dangerman for the home side.

Sheffield United v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Still, we didn’t endure four years of the League One grind only to lose our nerve when the big Championship nights arrived once again, so despite the injuries and the ongoing rumblings about squad depth, by 8:00pm, it was time to go.

In the early stages, as we tried to find our rhythm, Sunderland’s first chance fell to Lynden Gooch after he received the ball some thirty yards out - but his speculative deflected shot was comfortably held by Wes Foderingham.

At the other end, a mix-up between Dan Neil and Anthony Patterson led to a corner that fortunately came to nothing, and that was followed by the first attempted link-up between Ellis Simms and Ross Stewart, but the pass from Simms was slightly too heavy for the Scot to capitalise.

Things were looking encouraging, as we attempted to play with purpose, and a trademark slaloming run from Jack Clarke had the home defence on alert.

There was a real positivity to our play as the half began to take shape, with Alex Pritchard finding pockets of space and picking out some incisive passes, and Gooch whipping a beautiful ball into the box that was gathered by Foderingham with Stewart lurking dangerously. At the back, meanwhile, Luke O’Nien stood strong to block a shot from Oliver Norwood, which led to break that culminated in Stewart scuffing a shot wide of the post.

Just after the half hour mark, the game saw its first nasty twist from a Sunderland perspective.

Neil, who was looking increasingly frustrated after being pinged for two previous challenges, pulled back James McAtee on the edge of our penalty area and was duly red carded. Minutes later, we were 1-0 down, as a corner was headed home by Anel Ahmedhodzic to give the Blades the lead.

Sheffield United v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Bramall Lane Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

Naivety from Neil, slack marking from the corner, and now the challenge was even greater.

It was incredibly frustrating, because we had looked more than comfortable up until that point, but the ruthlessness of the Championship was highlighted once again. One error is all it takes to flip a game around.

Nevertheless, the game wasn’t over by any means, and half time gave us the chance to regroup. Surely we would respond strongly?

The only problem with that theory was that barely a minute into the second half, Sunderland conceded a second, as Max Lowe stabbed home to round off a beautifully-constructed move. Paul Heckingbottom’s side were clearly hunting more goals, and suddenly, the game seemingly became an exercise in damage limitation for the Lads.

As Alex Neil sought to stem the tide, his substitutes arrived shortly thereafter, as Jay Matete (who was outstanding), Bailey Wright and Trai Hume entered the fray, and Pritchard’s angry reaction to being subbed told its own story.

Eventually, we got our reward for refusing to cave in, as Gooch brought the score back to 2-1 with an outrageous, sublime chipped finish that sent the away fans into raptures and gave us genuine hope that a recovery could be mounted.

We were showing an exceptional attitude despite the numerical disadvantage, and the fighting spirit that has become our cornerstone was on display once again.

Sheffield United v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The scares kept coming, however, as a powerful deflected shot from the classy Berge thumped the post before being headed to safety by Hume, as the home side continued to press for a game-killing third goal via a series of set-pieces and neat passing moves in and around our box.

Late on, Patterson had to be alert as he tipped a Norwood drive over the bar, and the young goalkeeper pulled off an even better save in injury time, palming an Oliver McBurnie shot around the post.

Ultimately, we couldn’t quite find the equalising goal, and after seven minutes of extra time, we fell to our first league defeat of the season, and only our second under Neil.

It is now onward to Stoke on Saturday, where an equally tough challenge awaits. We have shown that we can dig in when the game is drifting away from us, but perhaps against Michael O’Neill’s side, we can get on the front foot and capitalise more effectively than we did last night.

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