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Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg

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Roker Roundtable: Sunderland’s best game and most improved player of 2022/2023!

In the second of our series of post-season reviews, we asked our writers to choose their Sunderland game of the season, as well as our most improved player

Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Game of the season

Andrew Smithson says…Bristol City vs Sunderland, 6/8/2022

I’m going to go a bit left field and opt for Bristol City away.

It was a good performance and probably a decent game for a neutral, but the big thing for me was that it proved Sunderland were going to be able to cut it in the Championship.

I was already pretty confident over the summer that we’d fine, but promoted teams do sometimes struggle and having made such a mess of it the last time we were at this level, getting a win on the board so early gave that little bit more reassurance.

We’d already got a point from Coventry City, so to compete well against two established sides set down a marker, and in general terms our start to the campaign was positive.

That meant that when the injuries started to hit we were already comfortable and confident enough to be able to cope, and that victory at Ashton Gate set the scene for several more superb away showings.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Andy Thompson says…Reading vs Sunderland, 14/09/2022

Before this game, I had huge concerns as to whether we’d actually be able to survive in the league and this was the turning point.

The goals we scored that night were brilliant.

Patrick Roberts got two quality goals and the third was a beauty. It was our goal of the season and it epitomised everything we’re about as a football team. It oozed class, we moved the ball so slickly from front to back, and I could hardly believe what I was watching!

This result showed that we were back and able to compete in a league we were so ill-prepared for the last time around.

It also saw a significant shift in the mindset of fans, that we were maybe not in so much of a relegation scrap. It seemed we would be more of a mid-table team that with a fair wind could possibly flirt with the playoffs.

It also was the beginning of this squad starting to demonstrate their determination as a group.

We’d just lost Alex Neil as head coach, we’d lost Ross Stewart to injury at Middlesbrough and then Ellis Simms came off injured. It was all looking a bit bleak, but despite this. we played some wonderful football that evening against a high flying Reading and showed that we were an adaptable team with flair and talent.

Reading v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by David Horton - CameraSport via Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says…Preston vs Sunderland, 8/05/2023

Our top six hopes were in the balance and a lot of the outcome was down to other results. There was only one way we would have a chance. and that was to win our game away in Lancashire, and how well did we do that

The impeccable top corner belter from Amad got the goals going after Patrick Roberts, Joe Gelhardt and Pierre Ekwah were all denied by the very capable Preston goalkeeper.

The second goal by Alex Pritchard was another touch of pure class, leaving their goalkeeper rooted with a switched shot across the goal.

Jack Clarke’s goal and our third was pretty much what we see as his trademark move, with a classy run, cut inside and curling finish into the bottom corner.

All three goals were wonderful finishes and with the pressure of the playoffs being within our grasp, the team stood up and really showed all they had.

You could argue that Reading away was special too, with three great goals and that team move that we’ve watched a million times since, but the Preston game carried such weight, and to perform like that was an immense effort from the lads.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Mark Wood says…Reading vs Sunderland, 14/09/2022

I’m going for Reading away back in September.

We hadn’t long lost Alex Neil and we’d also lost Ross Stewart a week or so before. He was our talisman and with his injury, thoughts of a long winter were in the mind of supporters.

Once the game kicked off, it wasn’t long before we lost Ellis Simms, who went down three times before he was eventually withdrawn with a toe injury.

At that point, it looked like our long winter was starting right there, but within four minutes Patrick Roberts had scored twice with two fantastic goals that were largely overshadowed by the third, a team move which began with the keeper and was finished off by Jack Clarke.

It was also the first time I’d really seen Aji Alese and he caught my eye before he even touched the ball, just by what he was doing - getting really tight on his opponent and giving him no option to get past at all - when he was running at him with the ball.

My thought was ‘Hello, what have we got here?’, and a couple of minutes later, he did the same thing again and got a foot in to win the ball before effortlessly strolling away with it and playing a pass to a team mate in midfield. You could see straight away that he was the real deal.

Opposition manager Paul Ince said afterwards that we’s looked like Barcelona. After everything that had gone wrong not only on the night but beforehand it should have been a trademark Sunderland disaster.

Instead it was where not just the fans but casual observers began to believe that we might have more than a decent side. Clarke’s goal one of the first of many team goals which have become our trademark.

Reading v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Tom Albrighton says…Sunderland vs Luton, 13/05/2023

With the stadium bathed in late spring sunshine, a 5:30pm kick off and the excitement of what was to be all made for an exceptional experience.

Some stellar work was done by the ‘Spirit of 37’ to gather up some top quality displays to help bring the atmosphere, and the Stadium of Light hasn’t been like it was that day in a long time.

An electric atmosphere translated into an electric game where the lads put in a dominant performance, and it was probably the peak of the season.

Sharing that moment with 45,000 others was incredible and it took those of certain vintage back to the early Stadium of Light days: the noise, the passion, it was all incredible.

It was a game that had everything a fan could want and it really solidified that this club is back and fighting with everything to get where it belongs. To see so many engaged after so many years of apathy was truly special.

What a game. What a day.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Most improved player

Andrew Smithson says…Jack Clarke

The coaching staff and the players themselves have done very well to progress the squad as much as they have, particularly with those who were new to the division or English football itself.

However, in my opinion, one of the most striking improvements was from a man that’s been here before: Jack Clarke.

It isn’t that he was starting from a low point, because he was important to us last season too, but the lad has taken it up a notch and added even more to his game.

It seemed clear from the recent club podcast that he’s got his head screwed on, and his attitude seems to be spot on. He’s got the graft to go with his technical ability and you can see from his stats just how much he contributes.

To be able be to get the likes of him and Patrick Roberts on the deals we did was superb work by the club, and it’s paying off massively.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Hawthorns Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

Andy Thompson says…Lynden Gooch/Luke O’Nien

I’ve written before about how Trai Hume was my most improved player, but I’m going to use this opportunity to talk about two other players who’ve improved massively this season.

Gooch and O’Nien came into 2022/2023 with points to prove and for me, they’ve been the reason that their teammates and the squad as a whole have improved at the rate they have.

I’ve been a massive critic of Gooch in the past.

He never set League One alight and I was worried that he’d be found out at this level, which shows how little I know. His form at the beginning of the year was scintillating, it kept Hume out of the team and it’s the reason that Hume has developed so well.

Hume had to be patient and Gooch arguably helped him to become the player he is now. He set the standard and has shown in the last part of the season that he’s adaptable and has literally played anywhere we’ve needed him to with passion and quality.

O’Nien was another player I was concerned about this year.

I had questions about where he’d fit in and where he’d play, but the answer is ‘anywhere’!

He’s been magnificent. His passion and sheer grit to be a better footballer has seen him develop into a Championship player but to also set high standards for our young squad.

In my opinion, both lads have been a driving force in helping develop this squad of youngsters and they’ve clearly been brilliant role models. Their passion for the club is clear and their determination to be better footballers in whatever position they’re asked to play means they both need massive appreciation.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says…Pierre Ekwah

He may not have played as many games as others, but other than Trai Hume, the growth he’s shown has been incredible.

He came from West Ham without a senior appearance to his name and with a careful introduction to the team, he’s shown exactly why we went in for him. He’s athletic and physical, but also a great ball carrier and as seen in the Preston game, he’ll get in the box and get goals, too.

The pace at which he’s grown suggests to me that he can be the next huge thing for us very soon. He’s definitely capable of playing at the top level and I can’t wait to see the recruitment team build a team around the likes of him.

A cracking find.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

Mark Wood says…Anthony Patterson

It feels like I’m spoiled for choice, from Trai Hume, Jack Clarke and Aji Alese, who’s one of my personal favourites, to the recently introduced Pierre Ekwah or more established players like Luke O’Nien.

However, the player I’m going for is Anthony Patterson.

He doesn’t always get the praise because he often doesn’t have a lot to do, but going into this season there were inevitable question marks because he was so raw, had never played a full season and had a couple of shaky games when he first played in the side.

However, I feel that he came on in leaps and bounds as the season progressed.

He looks far more confident than when I first saw him and his collection of crosses and distribution in particular has progressed by a long way. He’s proved on multiple occasions this season that he’s a superb shot stopper and all of this for a twenty three year-old goalkeeper in his first full season.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Tom Albrighton says….Trai Hume

Easy peasy, it’s the ‘Ballymena Baresi’.

Trai Hume excelled last season like no other player. After waiting as patiently as only a stoic Ulsterman could, he seized his opportunity with aplomb and what’s happened since has been nothing short of incredible.

Completely unfazed by big crowds and high expectations, Hume has established himself as not only our leading right back, but arguably one of best in the division, too.

His work on the ball has improved to the point where it matches his stellar reading of the game, and he’s endeavoured to forge himself into somewhat of a goal threat too.

Add to this the fact that he’s seamlessly slotted into both centre back and centre midfield, such is his wealth of talent, and I don’t think you can look beyond Hume as our most improved player.

Given that two years ago, he was plying his trade at Linfield, it really does beg the question of just how far this supremely talented player can go.

Norwich City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images


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