Sunderland show their mettle once again
In front of a huge crowd at the Stadium of Light, our battling qualities came to the fore as we salvaged a point from a game during which we seemed to fall into the trap of playing the occasion rather than the opponent.
Having fallen behind to two cheap goals, our playoff hopes looked to be in real jeopardy but Luke O’Nien’s prodded finish and then a stunning late effort from Patrick Roberts ensured that we kept ourselves in the hunt ahead of the trip to Deepdale.
On the balance of play, we probably deserved a point despite some disjointed periods of play and several off-key performances from one or two players, but it’s testament to the resilience of the squad that they didn’t crumble in the face of what felt like a perilous scoreline.
This wasn’t a vintage Sunderland display by any means, but it did reaffirm what we’ve known for a long time: these players simply never know when they’re beaten and they’ll dig as deeply as they can in order to salvage results.
Ekwah catches the eye in midfield
Tony Mowbray’s backing of Pierre Ekwah has been admirable and the former West Ham midfielder has rewarded his head coach’s faith with a series of improved performances in recent weeks, of which this was perhaps the best.
Ekwah was immensely impressive and he seemed to embrace the challenge with gusto, turning in an all-action display that offered more proof of his potential and how big a role he might play for us during the seasons to come.
One of his main strengths is his ability to prevent mistakes from throwing him off his game.
Whenever he misplaces a pass or fouls an opponent, he simply regroups, refocuses, and continues to go about his business. For a young player in a new environment, that’s very encouraging.
He’s clearly settling into life at Sunderland and is also getting attuned to our style of play as well as learning exactly what Mowbray expects from him. With time and patience, he’ll only get better and he could well evolve into the kind of dynamic midfield general we’ve needed for a long time.
Watford cash in as our defensive deficiencies are exposed
What made the visitors’ two goals so frustrating was that they were both avoidable and were also glaring examples of how injury-enforced absences have left us vulnerable to conceding in fairly basic fashion.
It would’ve certainly annoyed Mowbray, because Christian Kabasele and Ryan Porteous didn’t have to work too hard in order to get themselves on the scoresheet.
Instead, it was simply a bit of movement inside the penalty area, coupled with slack marking and good contact on the ball that left Anthony Patterson helpless on both occasions.
With more aggression and tighter marking, of which Danny Batth and Dan Ballard are easily our best exponents, the danger would probably have been dealt with and the outcome of the game could’ve been very different, because the Hornets posed little threat otherwise.
Our defence has been hit hard by injuries in recent weeks and although the players who’ve comprised our makeshift backline have acquitted themselves very well, Saturday was a reminder that savvy teams will often find a way to open you up, and how important depth at the back is going to be for next season.
A white hot Wearside atmosphere
The thorny issue of the atmosphere on match days has rarely been off the agenda all season, but there’s no doubt that the Stadium of Light was at its raucous best on Saturday.
From the pre-match flag display to the non stop vocal backing offered by the 44,000-strong crowd, it made for an electric backdrop to the game and was in many ways a tantalising glimpse of how the future might look, should we continue on the path we’re on.
The connection between the supporters and the players is as strong as it’s been in years (arguably since the 2006/2007 Roy Keane promotion season, I would suggest) and if it’s to be Championship football again next season, the players will doubtless be eager to play in more atmospheres like this.
After years of stodgy football and middling signings, the fans have a team to be proud of and it’s such a welcome relief after the turmoil and disillusionment of the League One years.
Regardless of which division we’re in next season, let’s keep the volume levels high and the passion unrestrained, and continue to show the footballing world that this club is moving forward once again.