I’m not exactly sure how you say, ‘To hell with this, I’m taking a shot and seeing what happens’, in Ukrainian but as Nazariy Rusyn took a touch, composed himself and finished crisply at the near post to salvage a point for Sunderland against Middlesbrough on Sunday, it’s fair to say that the lively striker had written his name into the history of this often one-sided fixture.
The Ukrainian comes across as a very shy and self-effacing footballer, but his goal was well finished, his Kylian Mbappe-style celebration was good fun and you could see from his teammates’ reactions that he’d contributed in significant fashion.
It’s abundantly clear that Rusyn is still settling in England after leaving his war-torn homeland last summer, but moments like this will hopefully help him to feel even more comfortable in a Sunderland shirt.
Rusyn, along with Patrick Roberts, had been introduced after we fell behind to a well-worked goal from Marcus Forss, and during a second half in which the home team grew in confidence and stature and the Lads seemed to crumble in the face of a Middlesbrough onslaught, the prospect of taking anything from the game seemed remote.
Thankfully, this particular showdown on the banks of the Tees didn’t end in more red and white pain, even if the nature of the performance as well as Michael Beale’s in-game management threw up more questions than answers.
Indeed, the outcome was far more important than the game itself, and a point for Sunderland was more welcome than it would’ve been for Michael Carrick’s dominant hosts.
Despite the fact that we undoubtedly got away with this and could’ve had few complaints had the game ended 1-0 to Middlesbrough, there were actually some positives to take.
Leo Hjelde’s Sunderland debut was promising enough, the majestic Jack Clarke ghosted past the home defenders whenever the mood took him, and there was another reliable and efficient performance from Luke O’Nien at the heart of our defence.
For the skipper, this would’ve been a real challenge after he struggled in the corresponding game last season, but he acquitted himself with typical tenacity.
On the other hand, Mason Burstow looked completely lost upfront, Jobe’s pre-Stoke malaise seems to have struck once again, and Pierre Ekwah simply didn’t influence things in the middle of the park as he can, and as we need him to.
Even though a draw was undoubtedly a respectable result, it could’ve been so much more.
How different might this game have been had Abdoullah Ba showed a fraction more composure in front of goal in the first half? All he had to do was put his laces through the ball, and the whole complexion of the game would’ve been different, but ‘ifs and ands’ are currently par for the course at Sunderland.
There are questions to answer and problems to solve, but slowly and inexorably, the propellers of the ship are starting to turn and we’re beginning to inch forward.
Are we genuine top six contenders? Yes. Will we be edged out for one of those coveted slots? Possibly, but after such a turbulent campaign and so much unrest and upheaval, we’re probably where we should be with sixteen games left to play.
Realistically, there are eight teams vying for two remaining positions and just like last season, it feels increasingly as though it’ll go down to the wire. January transfer window frustrations aside, we do have a squad that’s capable of challenging, but whether we can stay the course is up for debate.
For Beale, this also felt like a key result, because the harsh reality is that he’s being judged on a game-by-game basis in the eyes of many supporters, and defeat would’ve led to another long and draining week ahead of the visit of Plymouth on Saturday.
Should he have changed things sooner?
Yes, because it was obvious that Middlesbrough had taken a grip of the contest after the break, but on the other hand, far more illustrious Sunderland bosses than Beale have walked into a red-shirted tsunami at the Riverside and come off worst, so perhaps it’s churlish to be too critical on this occasion.
The memories of the 0-4 hammering earlier in the season won’t fade for quite some time, and although we didn’t get our revenge on Sunday, we did what many Sunderland teams have failed to do and deprive the Teessiders of another home victory over us.
Just as Roy Keane needed the late Liam Miller to slam a dipping volley past Mark Schwarzer to avoid defeat in 2007, it was a Sunderland player and another Australian goalkeeper who were at the heart of this game’s final act almost seventeen years later.
Whether this’ll be the result that genuinely turns Beale’s fortunes around, only time will tell, but given Middlesbrough’s home dominance over the years and our visibly fragile confidence, it feels fair to celebrate nabbing a point in such fashion, even if we needed a little bit of good fortune to make it happen.
As for the immediate aftermath of a hard fought game? Beale can go for a well-earned drink, the lads can prepare for Plymouth, and we can breathe again after Rusyn’s roll of the dice.