A horribly anticlimactic result
When the final whistle blew on Tuesday night, the muted reception from the home fans inside the Stadium of Light told its own story. Nobody seemed to know how to react and in a way, it wasn’t surprising.
This was one of those classic ‘neither here nor there’ kind of results and it certainly did us no favours in the race for the top six, even though the margins remain incredibly fine, with several teams vying for a place in the end-of-season shootout.
The occasion, a glorious, sun drenched Wearside evening, was seemingly set up for the lads to continue their encouraging form and to keep themselves firmly in the mix for the playoffs, and whilst the point does indeed keep us in the picture, dropping two more could represent a sizeable blow to our hopes of a second successive promotion.
In contrast, Huddersfield’s travelling contingent would’ve been delighted to leave with a share of the spoils and Neil Warnock will see this as a vital point gained in their battle against relegation.
Sunderland’s midfield misfire
When the starting eleven was published, it was a major shock to see Alex Pritchard seemingly set to line up alongside Dan Neil in the engine room.
After all, this experiment had already backfired spectacularly against Stoke City, and for Mowbray to opt for the same partnership again was a surprise, particularly with Pierre Ekwah in such encouraging form and the context of the game itself as one where a positive result was a non-negotiable.
In any event, it didn’t pay dividends.
Neil actually had a fairly effective game, despite walking a tightrope following a ridiculously early and unfair yellow card, but Pritchard didn’t dictate affairs as he would’ve hoped and without some real physicality in there, we often looked ponderous, sluggish and one-paced.
In many ways, there was a large Corry Evans-shaped hole visible at the heart of our team on Tuesday night.
This was the kind of game during which our influential captain would’ve brought all of his experience and know how, allowing others to do their job while anchoring things in his usual efficient and no-nonsense manner.
Joe Gelhardt’s mini-renaissance continues
The on-loan Leeds attacker continues to baffle me, and I suspect he has the same effect on many other Sunderland fans, too.
The goal he scored on Tuesday night was right out of the top drawer; a crisp, emphatic finish as he broke through and simply had to show the composure and coolness that’s often been lacking since his arrival.
It was thoroughly deserved and a rich reward for a series of improved performances from Gelhardt in recent weeks.
He hasn’t really come close to making the impact in red and white that we all hoped he would, but his energy and willingness to press have been key to our improved recent form and it would be no surprise if he chips in with one or two more goals as his loan spell winds down during the final three games of the season.
There seems to be a player there, but quite why it’s taken this long to emerge is difficult to fathom and it’ll be interesting to see what his future holds beyond the summer.
Is the Sunderland tank starting to run dry?
From a red and white perspective, there seemed to be a lot of tired minds and tired bodies on the pitch on Tuesday night, which wasn’t unexpected.
Overall, our performance lacked spark and it does feel as though our recent exertions are finally catching up with us. The worrying sight of Danny Batth limping off near the end summed it up, because breaks have been hard to come by this season and our squad depth has been tested to the limit.
Mentally, it’s clearly been a challenge for the players to recharge and pick themselves up in the aftermath of the crazy 4-4 draw against Hull, and although they earned two solid victories against Cardiff and Birmingham, this simply felt like a game too far against the gritty and well-drilled Terriers.
Nevertheless, with three games left, they need to steel themselves, attack the encounters with West Bromwich, Watford and Preston with everything they have, and see what happens.
Granted, the playoffs may feel like even more of a long shot now, but we can’t overlook the effort that these lads have put in since August.
Even if we fall short, they can rightly be proud of their efforts and they’ll head into next season with the confidence of having competed strongly, as well as far greater knowledge of this league and what it takes to make a sustained impact at Championship level.