As the players, coaches and fans made the trip to Norwich on Sunday, Sunderland’s season was at a crossroads and there were two directions in which the game could’ve gone.
Either a bad patch would turn into a slump, or the lads would get their act together and start to make the season memorable again for the right reasons.
As it turned out, with a performance that showcased some of the grit that hadn’t been seen in the previous three games, we took the latter route, dominating Norwich and not really giving the massive away following a ‘hearts in their mouths’ moment.
We know this team can play good attacking football and up until fairly recently, our fans had been getting used to excellent away performances.
Prior to the losses at Rotherham and Coventry, we hadn’t tasted defeat away from home since October 18th at Blackburn, a run that comprised five wins and five draws in all competitions.
OK, there was a growing feeling that we’d been ‘found out’ by sides who were aggressive, who pressed close to our midfield and were physically challenging, and constantly in the referee’s face.
I’ll conveniently ignore our defeat to Stoke as a one off and a day to forget, but as we prepared to face the Canaries, could we get back to the style of football that’s excited the fans so often during 2022/2023?
As a team, we certainly adopted some of those no-nonsense characteristics at Carrow Road.
Edouard Michut and Dan Neil protected the defence manfully and a similar level of steel and no little skill was displayed right through the team.
Nobody could look back at our afternoon’s work without a feeling of pride, and once Abdoullah Ba’s strike found its way into the corner of the home net, we had a lead to defend, and defend it we did.
Despite Norwich dominating possession, there were few shaky moments at the back and this was the Sunderland we’ve come to know and love on many occasions away from home this season.
As the league campaign has unfolded, there’s been plenty of discussion about our free-flowing football- notably against Rotherham, Reading, QPR, and Wigan- and the main architects have been Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts, ably assisted by Amad Diallo.
Although we enjoyed an amazing unbeaten run that lead us to the play-off final, Roberts and Clarke didn’t always feature under Alex Neil. During the 2021/2022 season, Clarke appeared nineteen times (nine as a substitute), and Roberts seventeen, with eight appearances from the bench.
Who could forget the pair linking up at Hillsborough, when Clarke picked up a long ball from defence and got away on the left before beating his man and crossing for Roberts to drive home the equaliser?
It was an unforgettable moment which sealed our ticket to Wembley, but this season has been a different story for the attacking duo.
Clarke has notched up thirty six appearances, including one as a substitute, and Roberts thirty three, with eleven contributions from the bench.
They’ve scored a combined total of eleven goals but their general play has been outstanding, with a ground-based approach being forced on them to a large extent after being without Ross Stewart for most of the season.
Until the flow of this exceptional creative football was disrupted during the defeats to Rotherham, Coventry and Stoke, the enterprise from the trio was set to be a season-defining feature of our play.
With that in mind, and despite a lengthy injury list, I can see this style being the preferred method going forward, provided the cohesion between the midfield and defence is maintained and the grit displayed at Carrow Road is restored as a feature of our play.