On Wednesday evening, Sunderland slipped to their first league defeat of the season, and only their second under Alex Neil. Unlike most losses, however, I wasn’t left with a bitter taste in my mouth afterward.
We matched our opponents, who finished fifth in the second tier last season, until Dan Neil’s red card, and when the Blades took the lead soon after with an hour left to play, it was fair to say that plenty of our fans (myself included) were thinking that it would be a long night in South Yorkshire.
The second goal, which arrived shortly after half time, was a sucker punch, but despite the numerical disadvantage, we continued to play the kind of football that had enabled us to create chances in the first half.
The goal from Lynden Gooch was sublime, but what was equally impressive was the quality of the build-up play, first from Jay Matete, and then the pass to Gooch from Ross Stewart.
We ran out of steam towards the end, and some stubborn defending was backed up by a number of outstanding saves from Anthony Patterson, a goalkeeper who looks like a different player to the one that was drafted in to play in the 3-3 draw at Wycombe Wanderers in January.
He might have been left out of the starting eleven at Bramall Lane, even in the absence of Corry Evans, but it would be grossly unfair to overlook Matete’s performance.
He entered the fray with Sunderland two goals and one man down against a well-drilled side who are surely destined for another playoff push this season.
Matete stood tall, put in easily his best performance in a red and white shirt, and with the imminent suspension of Dan Neil, he surely forced himself into contention for a starting role at Stoke on Saturday.
It’s not often that I’m encouraged after a loss, but perhaps that’s because almost every defeat in League One felt like a kick in the teeth, rather than a learning curve. For me, however, that is exactly what Wednesday night represented.
We gave our all against a side who were just a few games away from promotion to the Premier League last season, and who have players who really should be playing in the top flight.
In that situation, Sunderland sides of the past would have buckled and slumped to a three or even four-goal defeat, but we know that under Alex Neil, we’re made of stronger stuff, that we have a squad full of players who genuinely want to play for this club, and are proud to do so.
In Neil, we also saw a manager who maintained an attacking mindset, despite the setback of the early red card.
He kept the likes of Stewart and Jack Clarke on the pitch, knowing that by dragging off all of our attacking options, we would effectively be giving up without a fight.
As it was, we continued to look lively almost until the very end, and not at all like a newly-promoted side just feeling our way back into the Championship.
With a few more additions to the squad, particularly in central midfield, central defence and a third striker, I genuinely believe that we’ll be looking up, rather than over our shoulder as the season unfolds.
We often sing ‘Don’t worry about a thing, because Sunderland AFC are going to be alright’, and it’s never been more appropriate than for the first four matches of this campaign.