The Lads rise to the challenge after a tough week
During the last seven days, we’ve been able to add ‘Outside Noisegate’ and ‘Pritchardgate’ to the list of PR calamities to have hampered the club as we try and navigate our way through a very tough recent period.
However, as Michael Beale stoutly defended himself in the media after some beyond-the-pale criticism on social media and Alex Pritchard withdrew from the first team in the latest step of what’s shaping up to be a messy divorce, Sunderland’s players roused themselves, restored a good deal of pride to the shirt, and emptied the tank in pursuit of a much needed victory.
Our performance on Saturday was solid, committed and peppered with some promising flashes of attacking play (particularly in the second half, as we varied our attacking moves to good effect and thankfully weren’t solely reliant on Jack Clarke) and it offered some hints that perhaps we’ve learned from recent disasters such as last week’s defeat to Hull.
If the players looked disinterested and demotivated against the Tigers, the opposite was true here as strong challenges were made with regularity and we hustled and harried the visitors to great effect.
Lynden Gooch’s Wearside return didn’t yield any joy for the former red and white favourite, and overall, it felt much closer to the standard of performance we need to hit more regularly if a playoff push is to be sustained.
Beale deserves huge credit for overseeing such a victory, because the roof would’ve caved in had this result not gone our way
Even though there are tougher tests to come and plenty of questions for the head coach to answer, it’s churlish and frankly petty to complain when three points are banked, and that was certainly the case here.
Confidence boosters for Burstow, Ba, and Ekwah
Mason Burstow’s inclusion in the starting eleven might’ve come as a shock to many, and his goal was a gloriously scrappy header that somehow dropped into the net as Daniel Iversen tried to claw it out. However, you can only take the chances that come your way and it was great to see the Chelsea loanee finally break his duck.
In midfield, Pierre Ekwah looked far more assured and his goal, which ultimately wrapped up the three points, was just reward. A happy, fit and confident Ekwah is a huge asset to the team and let’s hope that this can be the breakthrough he needs as he attempts to rediscover his best form.
Abdoullah Ba, meanwhile, had an excellent game, with his pace and trickery causing Stoke issues all afternoon, and his display was capped with a crisply-taken strike to make it 2-0 shortly after the interval.
The young winger has taken plenty of stick this season and can often frustrate with his erratic decision making, but he’s a real talent and hopefully he’ll now be afforded a run of games to show what he can do. Being able to vary our attack is crucial, and having two potent wingers will be a godsend during the coming weeks.
Dan Ballard keeps things in check at the back
It’s very rare that you can affix the word ‘imperious’ to a Sunderland player and not be seen as engaging in hyperbole, but in the case of the no nonsense Northern Ireland international, it feels entirely appropriate after another superb display, the latest of many that he’s turned in this season.
Saturday was another example of Ballard simply striding through a game with minimal fuss and little drama, and his positional awareness, alertness and physical strength are the ideal counterbalance to Luke O’Nien’s more combative approach, with the two of them dovetailing very well as a central defensive pairing.
Long-term, it may well be that Jenson Seelt is moved into the centre of defence (despite another encouraging display at full back on Saturday) and Michael Beale might have some tricky decisions to make regarding selection.
At the moment, however, Ballard is the absolute rock at the heart of the red and white defence, and he's currently showing all of the pedigree that persuaded Sunderland to sign him in the summer of 2022.
A surreal homecoming for Lynden Gooch
The sight of the former red and white stalwart lining up for the Potters was quite disconcerting on Saturday, and even though the American was sometimes a polarising figure during his time at Sunderland, he also served the club very well and the reception he received after being substituted late in the game was fully deserved.
However, this wasn’t a happy return to Wearside for the man we affectionately labelled the ‘California Messi’, as his former teammate Jack Clarke seemed to relish the chance to send him back to the Potteries after spending eighty minutes inside a spin cycle, with the winger’s pace and elusiveness proving a real handful for the Stoke defender.
Gooch’s defensive prowess was never his best attribute, and he wasn’t really able to assert himself in an attacking sense on Saturday, either.
It must’ve been a very strange experience to have played against the only English club he’d ever previously represented, but it was still nice to see him back on his old stamping ground, even if it was in a losing cause.