So far, the Championship has not been plain sailing for Sunderland.
We’ve had everything from a late equaliser scored by a goalkeeper to a costly red card, as well as late sucker punches and real moments of quality. Saturday’s victory over Stoke City, however, showed that we are starting to get to grips with this league.
Over the years we’vee been labelled too soft, as ‘pushovers’, and have been accused of lacking determination, but it seems that Alex Neil has finally injected some old-fashioned characteristics into this team.
Fighting spirit, determination, passion, desire.
You name it, we have it at this moment in time.
Saturday’s victory at Stoke City epitomised the club’s new-found toughness, and the nature of the win was in contrast to our other league triumph this season, at Ashton Gate.
Against Bristol City, Sunderland were impressive as they overturned a deficit in the second half and played some great football throughout. At the bet365 Stadium, however, the Black Cats were second best for long periods, and had to dig deep to stay in the match.
This side is more than just a group of footballers: they’re a unit, bonded together by a passion to win.
During this season, there are likely to be bumps along the way (in fact, I’m certain there will be), but as was proven at Bramall Lane on Wednesday night, everyone will stick together, from the manager and the players to the fans in the stands.
If the team keep producing the kind of performances we’ve seen so far, there’s no reason why we can’t push on during this campaign.
Given the nature of the match on Saturday, it was no surprise that Neil’s side picked up six yellow cards across the ninety minutes, but a large proportion of those were in the first half.
Sunderland spent the majority of the opening forty five minutes on the ropes, and resorted to some cynical fouls along the way, but for the Lads to dig in to keep the scoreline level was proof of the character this side possesses.
The game’s only goal showed the mixture of resilience and genuine quality that we have at our disposal.
With the pressure mounting, the way that Jack Clarke spun away from his man in his own half and picked out a delightful pass to Ross Stewart was exceptional, and the finish from Stewart perhaps tells us more about the goalkeeper’s misfortunes than the strike itself.
It is in these moments where games are often decided. Coventry and Sheffield United both produced when it mattered, and at the bet365 Stadium, Alex Neil’s side produced their own moment of brilliance to change the game.
Without the pass from Clarke and the finish from Stewart, it could have been a different story.
If the match had been level when Dwight Gayle, Tyrese Campbell, and D’Margio Wright-Phillips came on for the Potters, the game may not have ended in Sunderland’s favour, but Neil was able to call on Bailey Wright, Corry Evans, and Trai Hume, and we managed to hang on and avoid any remarkable late goals in the process.
Overall, this performance was about the fight, spirit, and determination of this side, and for once, it seems that we finally have a team with all the attributes that we want to see.
The biggest challenge so far, however, comes at the Stadium of Light on Saturday when Alex Neil’s old side Norwich City make the journey to the North East. The Canaries seem to be kicking their season into gear, and will pose a real threat.
That test comes in just under a week’s time, but for now, it’s great to look back upon another win, and one that showcased all of our team’s best qualities.