For years my regular pre-match haunt has been the trusty old Victory Club on North Bridge Street, and whilst you can guarantee a cracking pint in a proper glass, it’s feeling a bit run down these days. There’s only so much one man can take when it comes to the stench of those toilets, and as such we’ve decided to try somewhere a bit different this season for a beer before the game.
Enter The Deaf Club. It’s back with a vengeance after a good few years of closure, with bars on three floors and an ample supply of cold Amstel, footy on the telly and even a platter of pizza very kindly shared around by the bar staff. It’s clean, it’s mean, and given its proximity to the ground I’m surprised that more people don’t head there before a match, but there we go. Maybe one of the ten people that read this blog might give it a try and I might have just rumbled the best-kept secret in Sunderland... which is fine, as long as we can still get a seat.
We sat in the downstairs bar and chewed the fat over a few pints, wondering what the team might be that Tony Mowbray would play. I was pretty certain that he’d make changes on the back of three defeats, and that he surely wouldn’t go with a strikerless system again - but I was wrong. Dack remained in the team and Mogga decided the best course of action was to stick to his guns, picking the same eleven that lost at Deepdale a week ago.
Bold, I’d suggest, but not particularly daft when you consider some of the chatter emerging from within the camp in recent days. There was very much a belief that we’d played well in the last two games and that a win wasn’t too far off, and given the team that Mowbray sent to play for the U21s during the week - featuring Bennette, Hemir, Triantis and Huggins - it was unlikely that he’d do anything too drastic.
I feel for Hemir, because after scoring with regularity during the pre-season friendlies we played it seems he’s been knocked down a few pegs, and playing in the U21s might have been a bit of a shock for a player who probably feels a bit confused about how he can’t get a start, despite being our only fit striker.
Mowbray trusts Bradley Dack though and understands what qualities he brings to the team, and I guess that once we got our feet under the table in the game we were able to see Dack’s qualities - but it wasn’t as a false nine where he was at his best.
We started with Dack as the furthest forward of the Sunderland midfielders, but after Rotherham’s goal - where a parting of the red sea occurred and their forwards waltzed through our midfield to put us behind for the fourth successive game - it was Jobe Bellingham who resumed the role of forward, with Dack dropping deeper to get on the ball and help up the tempo.
It worked, not only because you can tell Dack’s at his best when he’s more involved, but because Bellingham is a big lad that can not only win headers and give you a long ball option, but has good movement and, crucially, a canny finish.
Once we lost our nervousness and played with a more relaxed nature we were absolutely fine. We grew in confidence and, in truth, dominated the game. We never let Rotherham breathe in the second half.
I was seriously impressed with the reaction from the players to going behind, but was also a little peeved that it took us as long as it did to work the ball wide and cross it into dangerous areas. Bellingham was perhaps a little bit lucky that the goalkeeper's wrists were weak but his header made its way in, kindly left by Dack, and we were level.
I headed down just before half time to beat the queues to buy a few pints for the lads, and we assessed the first half. Everyone was relaxed and confident, something which I felt was transmitted from the players to the supporters given the way we ended the first period.
And so it continued. We kept the ball, moved it with pace and with Rotherham camped inside their own half, we dominated. Perfect, I thought - there’s no way we won’t win this game, because eventually Rotherham will break.
What I didn’t expect was for Jobe to be the goalscoring hero on more than one occasion, and it was some fantastic team play and an unselfish pass from Dack that gave us the lead - the ball was on a plate for the man we signed from Birmingham, and he delivered with a lovely side-footed finish which the Rotherham keeper stood no chance of saving.
There’s always the worry that Sunderland might do a Sunderland and chuck the lead away, but I was never really nervous and actually felt that we were likely to get another goal or two if anything.
Jobe can probably feel a little disappointed that he didn’t nab a hattrick, seeing two more glorious opportunities saved by Viktor Johansson. Still, it was a fantastic performance from the youngster, and I felt a little smug after some of the stick I got on Twitter after the Ipswich and Preston games for saying I felt he played well. Yes, I think he faded badly in both, but for the most part he was very good in those games. The thing that impresses me most about Jobe is that he seems very well-rounded as a footballer. He doesn’t seem to have any obvious weaknesses. He can get stuck in, he can win headers, he can do the fancy flicks and tricks, he can play you a neat five yard pass but also spray it across the pitch, and today we also discovered that he can score goals. Nice. I’m excited about him.
Importantly though we got the win that we’ve so desperately craved. I spoke on the preview Podcast and the Twitter Space live we did this week about the need for Sunderland to win at all costs. We’ve had a naff start and the morale of the fanbase has been dampened as a result, and given the strength of the teams we’re about to face in the coming weeks it was crucial we got that first win and some points on the board here.
Thankfully, we did just that, and with a bit of style.
See, I told you - there’s nowt to worry about!
We’ll win some this season, we’ll lose some this season - we’ll be fine. I’m not expecting us to have a barnstormer of a campaign this time around and as such I’d be pretty content with another positive season where we see the development of the young side we have before our eyes, scoring nice goals and playing decent football along the way.
I know that’s not the way everyone feels, but that’s how I feel. If we have a few more days like today, I’ll be more than content.