I was absolutely gutted when Sunderland’s game was called off this weekend, mainly because I was really looking forward to the chance to be there in person to see the Lads put some things right in the aftermath of the loss at Middlesbrough.
All season I’ve said that, even in defeat, I don’t think that we’ve been outplayed yet in the Championship - and that certainly bodes well for the rest of the campaign as we’ve got a lot of football to play.
Even after the game last Monday - which was probably our worst performance since the season started - I still don’t think we were dominated.
They were certainly the better side, but not by much. It would have been a different game had we not lost Ross Stewart right before kick off, and if Alex Pritchard had buried the best chance we had all game right near the start of the match.
But it’s pointless dwelling too much on that now.
We know where we stand with Rossco, and there’s no dressing things up - he’s going to be an absolutely massive loss over the next few months. He’s not just our best player, but he’s our most important player - absolutely everything, from defending set pieces to scoring the goals at the other end, comes through him.
I’d argue that no team outside of the European elite have the players at their disposal to be able to adequately replace their best ones over a significant length of time, so finding a different way to play without being able to call upon the big man has to be our number one priority - and the trip to take on Reading on Wednesday is Tony Mowbray’s toughest test to date with that in mind.
I’m sure we’ve all got our own theory on what needs to be done or what he can try, but it’s a big call for the new gaffer when it comes to the path he decides to take.
Do we completely dismantle a way of playing that has worked since March? Do we stick with the system we’ve got but place more faith in other players?
Some fans have suggested a raid of the free agent market could be on the cards, but that doesn’t feel right to me. Whatever the solution is, it has to be right under our noses.
Promoting Max Thompson already from the U21s side would be a big call at this stage. He’s started brilliantly and I think Mowbray can dangle the carrot in front of him without giving an immediate promotion to the first team - I’d be challenging him to carry on scoring with the promise that doing so will give him a route into the side while Ross isn’t around.
We then have a whole host of attacking midfielders who are desperate to play, but aren’t ever going to be able to replace even a fraction of what Ross gives us.
Leon Dajaku, Amad Diallo, Jewison Bennette and Patrick Roberts are all cracking players in their own right I’m sure, but expecting any of them to be able to play to a high enough standard as a centre forward at this level is pretty ludicrous.
Roberts is the one name that stands off the page. We re-signed him because he left a huge impression on the side at the end of last season, and to be honest, I feel sorry for him that he’s not been given a fair crack in the Championship yet - although I do completely understand why Alex Neil didn’t figure him into the side in the opening few months.
Where one door closes, another opens - this could be his time to shine. This could be Amad’s time to shine, or Dajaku’s time to shine. I hope that it is, because these young lads need chances to prove themselves - and more importantly, they need to grasp the opportunities when they arise and prove why they should be starting games.
Keeping this squad of players hungry will be the key to any success we have.
Obviously, I think we need to take one game at a time, but this could be a huge week for the club as Tony Mowbray looks to stamp his own impression on the side - after all, not all supporters were totally enamored with his appointment, and the sooner he shows he’s got things under control the better, really.
It would be naive to think we’re going to win every game this season, but some of the reaction to the defeat last week annoyed me. I think people have to get used to the feeling of losing, for now at least, because to be blunt... it’s going to happen a fair bit more this season than it did at any point in League One.
I have no real issue with losing games if I think the players have given their all, or if I think there are reasonable excuses for why we lost, and last week at Boro that was certainly the case. We might not have played well but I can’t fault the effort, and I can totally sympathise with having to regroup collectively when our best player goes down injured ten minutes before kick off. You just can’t prepare for it.
That excuse won’t wash used this week though, because we’ve had more than enough time to work out Reading and Watford. There are six massive points up for grabs, and if we can deliver some success in games against one of the pre-season promotion favourites and a side who have had a very good start, that should be enough to allay some of the fears that fans have about our ability to cope without Ross Stewart.
So no pressure Lads, but you’re a team, and you’re going to have to collectively bring all of the elements we are missing in his absence. Ellis Simms has to show more than he has done in recent games, Tony Mowbray has to show some tactical flexibility already at this early stage in his rein, our defence has to become more resolute, and the Lads waiting for a chance to shine have to actually recognise the opportunity that they have and, if they get a chance to show what they can do, they need to leave a lasting impression.
So... good luck to you all - go and smash it.