At one point on Saturday afternoon, as our brand new central defensive partnership came under another wave of renewed pressure from Birmingham City’s attackers, a fan sitting behind me summed up the dilemma that we faced before and during this particular game.
‘What’s the chances of both of your first choice centre backs being suspended?’
A succinct analysis and a very fair one.
Indeed, if Tony Mowbray had been quietly confident about his enforced defensive changes allowing us to maintain a sense of continuity, it didn’t quite work out that way, albeit in a winning cause as we eventually saw off Wayne Rooney’s team 3-1.
The absence of both Dan Ballard and Luke O’Nien following yellow cards against Swansea City meant that we went into the game against the Blues with a reshuffled defence, and when it was announced that Jenson Seelt would come into the team as part of a back four, we could at least feel a sense of comfort from a familiar formation, even if the personnel had changed.
However, there was another twist in the tale still to come.
Shortly before kick off, Dennis Cirkin was suddenly ruled out as injury struck again, and this meant that Nectar Triantis would be tasked with getting to grips with Championship football on a grand total of ten minutes’ notice.
Suffice it to say, this wasn’t exactly met with an overwhelming feeling of optimism, but these are the challenges that young players often have to face, and there would be no tougher test of the young defender’s character than this.
So, what was the verdict? Did this new look partnership offer hope that we’ve got some burgeoning defensive talent behind our frontline players, or were the alarm bells ringing from the first whistle to the last?
Overall, their performances, both collectively and individually, weren’t too far removed from what you might’ve expected.
Yes, they occasionally looked shaky, positionally suspect and somewhat unsure of how to approach things, but to their credit, they didn’t shirk and as part of a much-improved second half performance, they seemed to grow in confidence and slowly get a handle on things after conceding an annoyingly sloppy goal earlier in the game.
Of the two, Seelt certainly looked the more comfortable, particularly on the ball, and for Triantis, who was sampling the English second tier for the first time after his summer switch from the Australian league, this would’ve been a real eye opener but also a worthwhile experience.
He’ll now be fully aware of the standards he needs to reach in order to thrive at this level, but he’ll only learn on the back of such experiences.
It might be the case that it’ll be a while before he’s considered as a first team regular, but that’s OK, too. He’ll develop at his own pace and he needs to be ready to step into the breach when called upon.
There was also a great moment when Triantis found himself in the right place to put Dion Sanderson under pressure from Trai Hume’s looping header midway through the second half. The subsequent goal eventually went down as Sanderson’s, but nobody would’ve begrudged it to the young Australian as he stuck at it and applied himself diligently.
It would be extremely harsh to deny Triantis a good deal of credit for his effort on Saturday.
The fact is that it’s not uncommon for a debutant to look slightly ill at ease in a Sunderland shirt, particularly when making their bow in front of 40,000 expectant fans and during a game where the scrutiny would be dialled up to the maximum.
Indeed, many of our current key players began their Sunderland careers in fairly underwhelming fashion, but with time, patience and backing, they’ve absolutely thrived. Is there any reason to believe the same won’t be true of Seelt and Triantis? Absolutely not.
The fact is that for all of the grumblings of discontent and the ongoing pining for Danny Batth, the O’Nien/Ballard partnership (with the ever improving Anthony Patterson behind them) had worked extremely well for the majority of the season and will doubtless provide us with a solid foundation when we recommence our league campaign at the end of the month.
On Saturday, there wasn’t quite the same level of chemistry and cohesion, but once the nerves began to settle and we started to exert greater control on proceedings, the picture was much more positive.
The crowd got behind them, they seemed to channel that energy in a positive way, and by the full time whistle, everyone was appreciative of their efforts and the way they’d carried themselves.
This was a very challenging assignment for Seelt and Triantis, and although it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, you get a sense that Mowbray would’ve been impressed with their attitude, something he’s always placed a high premium on when integrating young players into his team.
As a starting point and something on which to build, it was an encouraging effort and hopefully they’ll use this as a starting point as they embark on what’ll hopefully be a productive career at the Stadium of Light.