Say what you want about Sky Sports, but they picked a couple of cracking stories to tell recently – and at the time they probably didn’t even realise it.
In choosing to broadcast Sunderland’s games against Norwich City and Middlesbrough when they did their reasoning was presumably that these were all relatively big Championship clubs likely to put on some decent football for their audience, but the managerial ruminations since the announcements have proven to be a bit of a bonus.
Sky have ended up being in the right place and the right time to focus not only on the Alex Neil news that broke 24 hours before their Stadium of Light programme, but on Monday night could also feature the intriguing return of a ‘Boro legend now representing one of their most unpopular rivals.
It was an unexpected angle to the first Tees Wear fixture since 2018, and the fact so many of their fans still wished Tony Mowbray luck upon his appointment as Head Coach at Sunderland spoke volumes about the man taking charge of his first away game with his new club.
Mowbray aside, most folk connected with SAFC are always going to be unwelcome guests at the Riverside Stadium.
The two sets of fans may view each other with different levels of antagonism, no doubt fuelling some of the aversion on the Teesside end, but it adds an extra layer to the games and means Sunderland always have to be on their mettle.
That didn’t seem to be the case in the opening stages however, when several poor passes meant they played themselves into bother on a number of occasions.
The late withdrawal of Ross Stewart was an undoubted blow, and no doubt had a part in this – the forward has been a mainstay of the side and his absence took some getting used to.
The lack of an out ball restricted Sunderland somewhat, and whilst Alex Pritchard did have one good opening the hosts had already been shading things when they took the lead through Riley McGree.
The goal came from a lovely first touch, although Luke O’Nien was unfortunate not to have been able to swipe the ball off McGree’s toes. The Aussie could have perhaps done better when he was presented with another chance later but overall, the first half was a pretty tetchy affair – Mowbray no doubt frustrated to see so many set piece opportunities for his side go to waste.
After the break we did see some promising signs from the Lads but things just didn’t seem to be happening, mainly due to the final ball or decision-making being found lacking. The players kept going but for all Sunderland dominated possession Liam Roberts found himself with little to do, and often the better moments from the likes of Ellis Simms were too far away from the Middlesbrough goal to really cause panic.
The hosts seemed to sense this and were quite content to sit back and let things play out in front of them as the game drifted. Jack Clarke saw a lot of the ball and towards the end of his evening Patrick Roberts did start getting into the game, but even after switching to a flat back four Sunderland were unable to really get in behind and when given a sight of goal thanks to a wonderful Corry Evans through pass, debutant Amad chose to try and lay the ball off instead of going for a shot.
It was a frustrating decision but that is the whole point of taking talents on loan from the top-flight, we will see a touch of rawness but he did show enough around the edge of the box to suggest Ivory Coast international could have an impact during the coming weeks.
Middlesbrough’s form had been a bit patchy going into the game and it wasn’t unreasonable to think the Lads could have got something from the game – particularly when we have looked so sharp in attack and were coming up against a home side without any clean sheets this season.
In the end the team huffed and puffed a bit though and needed to show just a little extra finesse in certain moments, but it wasn’t the worst showing either and was still a marked improvement on the last time Sunderland were in the Championship and sides simply had to show up to win.
Of the teams to beat the Lads in the league this campaign, one was a Premier League outfit in 2021-22 and the other two finished in the Championship top seven – we are yet to look out of place, and if the Stewart and Denis Cirkin removals prove to have been just precautionary a home win over Millwall at the weekend is certainly a possibility.
After that comes another Sky Sports pick – the trip to Reading, where after two narrow defeats on-screen Sunderland will be hoping that the story will be slightly different.
My Man of the Match: Danny Batth. Batth, like Evans in front of him, showed the importance of having a touch of experience in an otherwise still fairly young side. The game was frantic at times and the players were in front of a fervent home crowd, but Batth won his battles and tried to show the way.