Ibuprofen is currently out of stock on Wearside, so inflammatory were Michael Beale’s comments during Thursday’s pre-match press conference.
The Sunderland head coach seemed to take a huge hoof at the hornet’s nest when referring to the fans as ‘unhelpful outside noise’, thereby further stoking the fire that’s raging under him.
With details of the emergency PR repair work undertaken in last week’s supporters’ meeting disclosed on Thursday evening, those in charge did at least demonstrate that there’s some willingness to right the wrongs at hand.
While the prospect of facing an Alex Neil-less Stoke City provided us with some comfort, the club statement that preceded Saturday’s game certainly didn’t.
The news that Alex Pritchard had made Sunderland aware that he was no longer available for selection in an apparent attempt to force through a move following fruitless contract renewal negotiations was unsurprisingly met with the dismay it so deserved.
Club Communication: Alex Pritchard— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) January 27, 2024
After the poorly-timed Pritchard update, Sunderland Twitter was in meltdown and it was about to get a whole lot worse when the team news was released. The only change saw Mason Burstow given a starting berth, as Beale largely stuck with the same players that lost to Hull last Friday night.
The scene was therefore set for yet another toxic atmosphere at the Stadium of Light especially if no improvement from the last few weeks was visible. However, regardless of events on the pitch, cries of ‘Beale Out!’ were inevitable.
The apathetic malaise was perceptible from the off with swathes of red and white seats unoccupied, but we started relatively brightly, with Abdoullah Ba finding some joy down the right, Jack Clarke firing over from close range, and Pierre Ekwah hitting the side netting.
However, we failed to make the early pressure count and as the game went on, the Potters looked increasingly dangerous going forward, forcing Anthony Patterson to dip into his shot stopping repertoire on more than one occasion.
With the first half seemingly fizzling out into a rather unremarkable yarn, Burstow stepped up to bundle the ball home from a Ba header inside the box.
It was a poacher’s finish from a player who until now has lacked the killer instinct, and it sent us into the break a goal to the good.
The second half started as prosperously as the first had finished, as a blistering counter attack led to Clarke squaring it for Ba, who needed no second invitation to knock it past Daniel Iversen to double our lead.
After the second goal hit the back of the net, we managed the game well, with any hint of Stoke potency up front neutralised by our defence.
On the seventy minute mark, Ba, who was superb all afternoon, cut it back to Ekwah (whose brilliant initial header had kickstarted the attack) who finished calmly into the bottom right corner to put us out of sight.
Stoke did grab a late goal back, albeit via an unfortunate Jenson Seelt error, but the three points were wrapped up comfortably.
This was a game that spared Beale’s blushes and to his and the team’s credit, it was arguably the best we’ve looked under his management.
Like many others, I too was sceptical about his appointment and after a string of defeats, I was firmly in the ‘Beale Out’ camp, and although the win merely papers over the gaping cracks, some spirit and fight at the end of what must’ve been a tough week certainly highlights a sturdier mentality in the dressing room than we’d perhaps envisaged.
Although the question marks surrounding Beale will continue to circulate, the only way he’s going to win over his doubters is with performances and results like Saturday’s.