Before Christmas the optimism was boundless. We had just emerged from a relatively successful November and everything seemed to be gelling in the way that it should. November culminated with an excellent win over Barnsley, albeit there was a brief moment where it looked like we were going to throw it away. The one minor blip in November was the Wycombe game which we really should have won but managed to scrape a 1-1 draw. A blip, nothing more. It wasn’t a portent of failure or a signal that we were not quite there yet. After all, the build up to the big Boxing Day ticket bonanza had started. Things were looking up and it was only a matter of time before we won our games in hand, beat Portsmouth and Luton and then secured the title at a gallop.
December left us deflated a little. The Portsmouth game was one thing with a self-destruct button being pressed at Fratton Park and a disappointing result leaving many heading to panic stations. This was preceded by a cup exit and we still had the Bradford game to come. The Boxing Day match did nothing to disappoint in terms of the magnificent crowd and the owners preened over the attendance which reached and breached their target for the match. The fans still believed and were still behind the central ideology of the new regime. What has to be said however is that the Bradford game was far from convincing. Yes, Bradford were on a bit of a resurgence, but they are not a great team, and that game could easily have gone the same way as our next which was a far more disappointing draw at home to the worst away team in the league. Rant about gamesmanship all you like but Shrewsbury came to do a job and Sunderland failed to get that second goal meaning three points which were expected became one point which was arguably all we deserved.
We remain undefeated in January, but for the grace of Jon. A 1-0 win against Blackpool could easily have been another draw but for the outstretched boot of Jack Baldwin and a good first half display was thrown away at the Valley as we clung on with our fingernails when Charlton pressed. It’s no bad result to get a draw at Charlton these days, but after leading it felt a bit like a defeat; and then came Luton. Now Lee Probert put in one of the most biased and incompetent displays from a referee that I have ever witnessed, but what was more startling for me was the difference in the two sides. I’m not talking about the freak breeding conditions that provided Luton with the beasts they had in both defence and attack. I’m talking about players like Pelly-Ruddock Mpanzu, a strong physical centre midfielder who was incredibly comfortable on the ball and managed to create room in the centre of the park in a league where you aren’t supposed to have time to think. Dylan McGeouch probably had his best game for us but our tackling and tracking back was desperate at times with little purpose or direction. Luton deserved their point at least and but for Jon McLaughlin in goal we could easily have seen a repeat of the Portsmouth result. Sunderland did not look as good as Luton, plain and simple.
Our new signing Jimmy Dunne watched on from the bench and hopefully managed to see where things were going wrong, Josh Maja was ill. Whether he would have made a difference is up for debate. The fact of the matter is that the Luton match exposed a need for reinforcement within the team. Our inability to grab that second goal has cost us points all season with matches against Oxford, Wycombe, Shrewsbury, Fleetwood, Coventry, Charlton and of course Luton both home and away representing missed opportunities. If you take Charlton and Luton out of those fixtures there are still eight points dropped. Those ten points would have us five points clear with two games in hand.
The Maja saga needs to be cleared up, not publicly, but in a way that either allows us as a team to move on from it or for the player himself to bed in for at least the rest of the season. The public deadline setting for contract renewals was unhelpful as fans gathered on the deadline day to hear what was going on. The news was not good and it deflated spirits. All of that should have been kept in house. The next bit of business was the Will Grigg situation. Now I’m not sure where the news came from that we had submitted a derisory offer, but again; this is unhelpful. It sends messages out to agents and clubs that either we are behaving unprofessionally, or we don’t have much money, neither of which are good news stories. While I think we are all in favour of the piss take party stopping, that doesn’t mean you have to limp around with a full bladder all the time and a bit of a statement signing would really lift the place and, who knows, convince players already at the club that the owners mean business and this could actually be a good place to sign your new contract. Stewart Donald has publicly stated that we will be signing players and that Jack Ross will be supported. He has refuted rumours of a £200k offer for Will Grigg. I would rather not hear about any of that if I am honest. I would much rather just see us bringing in players that lift the fans.
In brighter news, our points total suggests we are more than likely to be promoted this season based on previous season tallies and so there is no need just yet to reminisce over typical Sunderland and start the hand wringing and nail biting; however, there are warning signs which we can all see that mean without proper investment a fade might be on the cards. January is a very important month for us and the players we sign have to be of a high standard and capable of turning those draws into wins. If we can achieve that then we will have no problems and our party in Essex on the final day of the season will be booked, failure to do that could see us in the lottery of the play-offs; potentially against Charlton. Now I know nobody wants that again.