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Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Matchday Musings! Sunderland grab all three points from five-goal West Country thriller

The Lads made their first away trip of the season on Saturday, with a visit to Ashton Gate to face Bristol City, and thanks to a stunning debut from Ellis Simms, claimed a superb victory

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A hugely important victory, plenty of encouraging individual performances, and a brilliant demonstration of our ability to dig deep, stand firm, and eke out a result from a game in which we were up against it for long periods of time.

Sunderland’s first Championship win of the season ought to do wonders for the confidence of the players and the fans, and if the draw against Coventry last weekend was a solid start, this was significantly better, and four points from our first two matches is an excellent return.

Pre-match, Alex Neil shuffled his pack, with the exciting Ellis Simms brought into the starting eleven to partner Ross Stewart, and Patrick Roberts and Elliot Embleton settling for places on the bench.

Selection-wise, it was also interesting to see Daniel Ballard and Danny Batth retain their places after their burgeoning central defensive partnership showed some promising signs against Coventry last weekend.

In bright sunshine at Ashton Gate, we made a start that was somewhat rash, to say the least, as barely fifteen seconds in, Corry Evans seemed to take Lee Howey’s urge to ‘get stuck’ too literally.

A crunching challenge on Han-Noah Massengo led to a yellow card for the Sunderland skipper, as the Northern Irishman set what looks like an unbreakable record for the fastest booking of the season.

That blip aside, our breakthrough came shortly thereafter, when Stewart gained possession on the edge of the box after some relentless pressure, before Simms gathered the ball and slammed home a superb strike that beat Daniel Bentley for pace.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

A wonderful early goal, and a tantalising hint of just what Simms might bring to our forward line this season.

Bristol City fashioned a half-chance of their own some minutes later, when a shot from Joe Williams took a deflection before being gathered by Anthony Patterson. On the counter-attack, Nigel Pearson’s team were posing a real threat, stretching our defence at every opportunity, and our midfield wasn’t gaining control of things, with Evans and Dan Neil virtual passengers at times.

Unfortunately, the equalising goal wasn’t long in coming, as a botched attempt to play an offside trap resulted in Andreas Weimann slotting the ball past a helpless Patterson. Poor defending, and more evidence that switching off, even for the shortest time, will be punished in this league.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Despite that knock, the Lads soon fashioned another chance, when Simms turned his man inside the box, but his attempted shot was deflected behind for a corner. The on-loan Everton striker was making a huge impression, with his hold-up play, pace, and physical threat offering us a real threat up top.

After riding some waves of pressure from the home team, we continued to press forward, and an incisive pass from Pritchard found Clarke, whose pass was cut out with Simms lurking for what would’ve been a tap-in at the back post.

On the stroke of half-time, Evans almost atoned for his early yellow card with a crisp twenty yard volley that Bentley was able to parry to safety, and ensuring that the game was level at the break.

Early in the second half, a driving run from Clarke led to a free kick which ultimately came to nothing, when Evans shanked a volley high and wide, and minutes later, we were 2-1 down.

Pritchard inexplicably lost track of Weimann, who drove into the box before setting up Chris Martin for a scrappy finish that might well have been registered as an own goal from the unfortunate Batth. Two infuriatingly sloppy goals conceded, and we were suddenly being forced to show all of the grit that Neil has instilled since his arrived.

Thankfully, we weren’t behind for long.

A beautiful pass from Pritchard played in Simms, who steadied himself before calmly slotting the ball through the legs of Bentley to make it 2-2. Far from needing time to settle, the young striker looked like he'd been playing for us for years, and this was turning into one hell of a debut.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Ten minutes later, a point-blank save from the City stopper denied Simms a stunning hat-trick after he was teed up by Clarke. Suddenly, we were riding the wave of momentum and playing some excellent attacking football as the home side struggled to contain us.

With fifteen minutes to play, we went 3-2 up, as Stewart headed us into the lead after an accurate cross from Pritchard, sparking joyous scenes in the away end as the big Scot opened his account for the season.

The scares weren’t quite over, however, as Ballard had to be alert to throw himself in front of a goal bound shot from Mark Atkinson, and City also gained themselves a succession of corners as we had to stand firm to see the game out.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

See it out we did, however, and this was a hugely important step forward as we settle back into life in the Championship.

The squad is not yet perfect, and the need for a dominant central midfielder and an orthodox right-back were reinforced starkly in the first half, but we are not a million miles away, and perhaps victories like this might make us an even more attractive proposition to potential signings.

Mass rotation should be the policy for Wednesday’s league cup game at Hillsborough, with that competition not the highest of priorities, and there should be another great atmosphere next Saturday, when QPR arrive on Wearside.

Oh yes, and we we please retain Dan Godfrey and Lee Howey as the club’s in-house commentary duo? They were truly a joy to listen to on Saturday, and they could enliven every game this season if they are used on a regular basis.

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