After the last Alex Neil derby ended in a bitter 1-5 drubbing at a drenched Stadium of Light back in March, we headed down to the Potteries with a point to prove and a score to settle.
Despite Tony Mowbray’s calls to “park” the calamitous loss and dismal refereeing display of the Boro game a fortnight ago, the foul stench of the officiating has lingered over Wearside like one of your dad’s Christmas Dinner farts, and it certainly seemed the two-week-long hangover had followed us to Staffordshire.
With Dan Neil absent through suspension, we were provided some welcome midfield relief through the return of everyone’s favourite Cockney Frenchman, Pierre Ekwah. Neil aside, Alex Pritchard came in for Mason Burstow having missed out through injury last time out.
The game kicked off at a meandering, disjointed pace, with neither side really asserting themselves on the ball. A string of tidy spells from our Bellingham brother were the only real notable pieces of play in the early exchanges.
However, it took just seven minutes for the referee to etch his name alongside Jarred Gillett on the officiating wall of infamy when Stoke forward, Ryan Mmaee, who has a surname that looks as though the birth registrar fell victim to pocket-typing, clearly handled the ball before slotting the ball past Patterson who was mid-protest.
While it’s fair to say we were defensively poor during the build-up and Anthony Patterson should have played to the whistle, the PGMOL already had questions to answer.
Fortunately, Sunderland retorted defiantly almost immediately, with Jack Clarke tapping the ball home after Mark Travers palmed Jobe’s shot into the grateful winger’s path, who has now registered eight goals already this season, one shy of his entire tally last term.
The remaining 35 minutes were, frankly, a borefest, with both sides failing to capitalise on their opening goals. It turned into a scrappy, fragmented affair with the only other real chance falling to Abdoullah Ba, who had to score while one-on-one with their goalie following a defensive mishap.
When half-time came, it was evident we were in desperate need of a reshuffle.
Roberts’ strengths were being wasted in the ten position, and a lack of a forward presence was really harming us up top. Despite calls, mainly on social media, to rejig things, Mogga sent us back out unchanged.
Another slow start saw Stoke regain their lead from a looping corner that wreaked havoc in our congested six-yard box, which subsequently saw Luke McNally head home. Our second-half display was as turgid and lacking in inspiration as the first. Our creative flair and penchant for picking teams off on the counter was well-managed by a niggly Stoke defence, who frustrated and shithoused their way through the remaining 40 minutes.
It took until the 66th minute for Mowbray to take any action at all, bringing on Rusyn, Burstow, and Dack to chase the game. Despite a late push for an equaliser, with a Ballard header sent crashing against the post, our last-ditch efforts were thwarted, leaving the Bet 365 with no points, and a seriously tough challenge in Leicester on Tuesday awaiting us.
On a side note, it was certainly a sight to behold seeing Lynden Gooch play against us, but nevertheless, it was nice to see he was greeted by the 2,000-strong travelling faithful with the trademark “Goooooch”.
For me, this was the first time in a while that we really missed a forward presence who has the ability to disrupt, run the channels and drag defenders out of position.
Whether it was Ba, Roberts, Clarke or Pritchard, they were always posed with a shortage of options. While the refereeing will yet again dominate the headlines for all the wrong reasons, we were way below par performance-wise.
While it is not time to become overly concerned, we were tactically inept, albeit able to rectify the issues at hand with the personnel we have at our disposal.
Patience is key at this stage, especially while Tony Mowbray gets to grips with his preferred starting XI and formation.