It’s certainly been an eventful festive period at SAFC. We went from the crushing nadir of the Coventry game that was a throwback to the darkest days of the 2017-18 debacle, to the unexpected but much-needed win at Hull (which I foolishly decided to skip in favour of a lazy Boxing Day in front of the telly).
By all accounts the atmosphere in the away end on Humberside was pretty special, so the imminent return to Yorkshire to face Rotherham was naturally the hottest ticket in town. Some Facebook users even went as far as declaring their willingness to sell off elderly relatives in order to secure one. And at Christmas time as well…
Having returned to my native Chester-le-Street for Christmas, I got the rare experience of travelling to the game from the North East with the majority of our fans. Any sense of nostalgia or novelty, however, quickly evaporated when we arrived at Durham station to see that not only was our Cross Country train cancelled, but that the next one was further delayed by around fifty minutes. We took refuge in the Bridge Hotel, to catch some of the darts and bemoan the temerity of the train companies hiking their fares when services remain as hopelessly unreliable as ever.
Predictably the train was standing room only when it eventually arrived, with the vestibule a poky mess of suitcases and cramped passengers. One poor woman near us mentioned that she was heading all the way down to Penzance. No matter how bad things get, it’s always important to remember that there’s always someone worse off than yourself.
After checking in to our windowless EasyHotel room in Sheffield (only thirteen quid each by the way), we joined some of the London branch lads on the way to Rotherham. The New York Stadium (or whatever forgettable string of letters it’s called nowadays) has never been a happy hunting ground. My last trip here was that shambolic 5-1 reverse in League One, which was also the date of my 30th birthday, so on a personal level there were more than a few demons to exorcise.
The team sheet was mostly what we expected aside from the highly questionable decision to start Aouchiche up front. It seems like Beale is drawing lots to see which lucky midfielder gets his turn to look completely out of place playing a completely unfamiliar role. What Rusyn and Mayenda must be thinking right now is anyone’s guess.
Sunderland started the game fairly comfortably, but tailed off as the half went on, and it was only a string of fine saves from Patterson that kept the scores level. As everyone predicted, Rotherham were happy to sit in and let us keep the ball, then look to exploit our pathological fear of set pieces and long throws. We were quite fortunate not to be behind at the break, and a big improvement was needed.
Burstow replaced Aouchiche at half time, but the Chelsea loanee unfortunately remained as anonymous as he has in most of his appearances for us. Rotherham took the lead through a great strike by Sam Clucas, and it felt like this would be another fruitless away trip to add to the ever-growing list from this season.
Just as he has in pretty much every game recently, Pritchard came on and injected some much-needed spark and zest into Sunderland’s attacks. It was also nice to see Timothée Pembélé make his debut, especially given the desperately unfortunate loss of Huggins to long-term injury. Clarke was the saviour once again with a lucky deflection, and despite pushing on for a winner we left with a scarcely deserved point to wrap up 2023.
As you come to expect with this club, it’s been a year of ups and downs. The overall trajectory still seems to be trending upwards, but it feels like the club is approaching a mini crossroads this coming month. If we can get to the end of January with Clarke still our player, a league position within touching distance of the playoffs, and without an FA Cup hiding from our Saudi-funded neighbours, that would constitute a decent start to 2024.