Heart, pride, and an absolutely outstanding level of commitment and desire to take something from a fiendishly tough encounter.
That was Friday night’s game against Burnley in summary as Sunderland held the runaway leaders to a highly creditable draw that ensured their own promotion will be delayed, and also proved that our lads have all of the qualities that we want to see in our team.
When the starting eleven was announced, the main talking point was arguably the inclusion of Pierre Ekwah. The January arrival from West Ham had looked good during a substitute appearance against Luton, but this was undoubtedly a step up and a big opportunity for him.
Elsewhere, it was promising to see Dennis Cirkin return to the squad after a concussion-enforced absence and from the bench, Tony Mowbray could also call on the likes of Amad and Edouard Michut, fresh from their international exploits with the Ivory Coast and France respectively.
In contrast, the home XI was as imposing as you would’ve imagined but nevertheless, the challenge was there and we had to face it.
After all, tests like this will need to be passed for an eventual promotion back to the Premier League, and Turf Moor is certainly the kind of place where character can be developed.
In the Lancashire rain, the game kicked off and an early cross from Anass Zaroury served notice of his threat, but Luke O’Nien was alert to the danger and was able to clear. In the early stages, it was no surprise to see Burnley dominate the ball and a cheap foul conceded by Dan Neil on Zaroury led to a free kick that came to nothing.
Attacking-wise, there was little to shout about, although a half-chance fell to Joe Gelhardt after some sloppy play from the hosts, but he was beaten to the loose ball by Jordan Beyer. Shortly afterwards, Jack Clarke’s shot was blocked and Ekwah sliced the rebound wide on the volley.
We were certainly holding our own despite the hosts dominating possession and territory, and you got the sense that the plan was to contain, remained disciplined and then take any chances that came our way- in contrast to how we approached the first half in the reverse fixture.
Another good chance soon fell to the Clarets when a Taylor Harwood-Bellis shot was saved well by Anthony Patterson after a penalty box scramble, while at the other end, a glancing header from Danny Batth came to nothing and a shot from Patrick Roberts was palmed to safety by Arijanet Muric, who then saved a well-struck volley from Neil.
Scares came towards the end of the half with a curling strike from Ashley Barnes that sailed over the bar, and Lynden Gooch’s block prevented Josh Brownhill’s shot from troubling Patterson.
Half time was welcome but we’d done a sterling job during the first half and the players deserved credit for executing the game plan to good effect. Discipline and resilience had been the watchwords, and the question was whether we could maintain it.
As the second half began, a raking pass from Ekwah to Roberts wasn’t maximised as he shot straight at Muric, and the game was becoming increasingly stretched as the hour mark approached and both teams tried to turn up the wick.
We were certainly trying to carve out opportunities and another excellent block from Trai Hume from a Zaroury shot was desperately needed, and changes eventually came as Ekwah and Gelhardt made way for Amad and Michut.
Shortly after coming on, the Manchester United loanee almost broke the deadlock as his deflected shot looped onto the bar as time seemed to stand still.
As we entered the final ten minutes, an innovative corner routine led to Clarke fizzing the ball across from a tight angle for Abdoullah Ba to tap it in, but cruelly, the offside flag came to Burnley’s rescue. It would’ve been a deserved goal, but on this occasion, it wasn’t to be.
Despite the home side continuing to press, we dealt with everything they threw at us through a combination of sheer willpower and some outstanding defending, and when the full time whistle blew, it represented a major step forward for our young and exciting team.
We’ve emerged from the Stoke shambles with some excellent results, and demonstrated that for the first time in a long time, we can call on a team that is fully unified and desperate to represent the supporters and the city with pride.