Up until the eighteenth minute on Saturday, things were going well for Sunderland and there was little indication of just how much of a slog the afternoon would ultimately turn out to be.
We’d looked bright and sharp during the opening exchanges, with some excellent interplay between Patrick Roberts and Amad, and Dan Neil was impressing in midfield, snapping into tackles and breaking up the play nicely alongside Corry Evans.
For their part, Swansea were fairly lacklustre, despite their reputation as a team who retain the ball exceptionally well, and it felt as though the breakthrough would arrive sooner rather than later.
However, fifteen seconds after Keith Stroud failed to award a penalty for a clear foul on Amad, Luke O’Nien thundered into a challenge- wholeheartedly but not necessarily maliciously.
A melee subsequently ensued, and after some deliberation and plenty of encouragement from the visiting players, Stroud brandished the red card and our best-laid plans were promptly shredded.
Was it a red card-worthy challenge? Debatable. Should O’Nien have played the percentages and refrained from making such a tackle in that area of the pitch? Without a doubt, but let’s make no bones about this: Stroud’s performance was nothing short of a disgrace.
For a supposedly elite-level referee, his refusal to award clear fouls when they were merited was staggering, and he seemed to relish the opportunity to put himself in the spotlight and make the game all about him.
Ross Stewart was roughhoused by Harry Darling all afternoon, but Stroud just wouldn’t be moved, despite presumably seeing exactly the same as every fan inside the stadium.
The creeping trend of ‘celebrity referees’, formerly embodied by Mike Dean, is one of the absolute worst things about modern football. There seems to be no indication of accountability on their behalf, and it’s safe to say that Stroud won’t be welcomed back to the Stadium of Light any time soon.
From a Sunderland point of view, the remainder of the first half was an exercise in containment. This was epitomised by the relentless effort of Stewart, who doubled up as both a centre forward and a central midfielder as we tried to keep Swansea at bay.
We maintained our shape and showed some real battling qualities, and it was obvious that energy levels and the personnel deficit would eventually play a part in the outcome of the game.
The scoreline at the break was 0-0, but the second half was a tale of optimism, elation, and ultimately sheer frustration.
Joel Piroe’s opener, the result of Lynden Gooch losing his man at the back post and the ball being hooked across, was a setback, but our refusal to fold was admirable. When Jack Clarke dinked an inviting cross to the back post for Danny Batth to knock down and Dan Neil to volley home, it was nothing less than our efforts deserved.
However, Swansea’s second and third goals were annoyingly cheap, and the elation of the equaliser was soon tempered by deflation.
Fatigue was clearly setting in by that stage but having worked so hard to drag ourselves level, to see any chance of a result evaporate was a real sickener, and Tony Mowbray’s unwillingness to make proactive changes certainly played a part, too.
Liam Cullen’s scuffed finish seemed to be the result of hesitancy between Batth and Anthony Patterson after the ball was played into a dangerous area, and he was also beaten at his near post by a flashed shot from Ollie Cooper- albeit with the help of a nasty deflection that I didn’t initially notice in real-time.
Despite the nature of the defeat, our attitude on Saturday was exceptional.
Heads didn’t drop and shoulders didn’t slump, and if you can lose in the ‘right way’, this was a very good example of doing just that.
There’ll no doubt have been some harsh words exchanged in the dressing room after the game, but team spirit is very strong and by the time we start our preparations for Sunday’s encounter with Middlesbrough, this game needs to have been filed away and the frustration bottled, ready for what’s sure to be a ferocious battle next weekend.