In what was otherwise a fairly even-tempered affair, the sight of Hemir hurtling down the touchline and into the melee that was sparked by a horrendous challenge on Luke O’Nien during Saturday’s friendly with Mallorca was a major talking point after the game.
After marking his Stadium of Light bow with a goal, the striker demonstrated that he’s already getting settled into life on Wearside, and after four pre-season goals and some encouraging performances, his impromptu vigilante act showed that he’s already invested into what you might call ‘the new Sunderland way’.
Among the many things to like about the 2023 incarnation of our club is that our squad is comprised of a very tight-knit, focused and dedicated bunch of players.
They fight for each other, they carry their share of the load and there’s seldom any slacking. The tone is set by Tony Mowbray, who encourages attacking play but doesn’t let the players get away with failing to work hard off the ball, and players like Jack Clarke have benefited enormously from this approach.
With the new season about to start, that’s very reassuring as we prepare for another forty six-game slog.
Tuesday’s comical 5-2 defeat at the hands of Hartlepool, albeit with a much-changed team and many players in alien positions, was a bit of a sore one but come 5:30pm on Sunday, when we run out to play Ipswich, you’d think the Lads will have gotten that out of their systems.
The fact that our first game is at home could certainly provide us with some evidence of whether we’ve addressed some weaknesses from last season; weaknesses that undoubtedly prevented a memorable campaign from becoming a truly unforgettable one.
Last season, our home form was an issue that gradually became more glaring as the campaign unfolded, and a total of seven victories in front of our own fans was scant reward for the fourth highest scorers in the division, and the most exciting squad to wear the red and white stripes in over a decade.
At the heart of this was our lack of game management, which in turn led to a habit of conceding sloppy goals and failing to capitalise on periods in games where the momentum was firmly with us and the opponents were on the ropes.
Too often, we would attempt to play ‘full throttle football’ which was expansive, exciting and great to watch, but not without its drawbacks. Perhaps it was down to a touch of over-enthusiasm and a desperation from the players to prove themselves, which in many ways, you could understand.
When we hit runaway league champions Burnley with a one-two punch in October, for example, the visitors were rocking and we really should’ve cashed in for what would’ve been a statement victory.
However, perhaps due to a lack of nous, needle, or physical stamina, we eventually faded and although the final score might’ve looked slightly harsh, it was a brutal lesson in what can happen if you’re not street smart and able to control the dynamics of a game.
Latterly, the spring encounters with Stoke and Huddersfield were shining examples of what can happen if you’re off your game and not willing to put in the hard yards, and that’s to say nothing of the utterly enthralling 4-4 draw at home to Hull, where one naive swing of Pierre Ekwah’s leg ultimately cost us two key points.
Composure under pressure and the ability to slow a game down, frustrate the opponents when you’re in a position of strength and dampen a travelling crowd’s spirits are utterly essential in this division.
Yes, it might drive us crazy when visiting teams engage in such tactics, but it’s just what you need to do at times and personally, I’d take a handful of gritty wins over exciting draws or losses any day of the week, which is something that all successful Sunderland sides have been capable of.
The really encouraging thing is that with a year’s worth of Championship experience under their belts- as well as the addition of the vastly experienced Bradley Dack- the hope is that our players will have a far better understanding of exactly what’s needed to eke out victories in close-fought games.
Judging by what we’ve seen during pre-season, many of the players have developed physically and with that should come a greater level of resilience and a determination to construct a more impressive home record during 2023/2024.
No team should be feared at the Stadium of Light, and although the expectations will undoubtedly be greater, I’ve got faith that this squad, with Mowbray’s backing, can put right the wrongs of 2022/2023.
The likes of Dan Neil and Ekwah, who’ll both be key to our chances this season, will have learned a great deal from their maiden Championship campaign, and hopefully they can put it into practice, starting this Sunday.
Perhaps you could sum up this approach with the old Neil Warnock quote: “By all means enjoy it, but enjoy it by being disciplined here.”
We’ve got skill, attacking flair and youthful exuberance in abundance, and if we can combine that with a touch savvier and greater composure during key moments, our home record has every chance of looking far healthier when the curtain falls next May.