The performance against Wycombe was excellent. I think we can all probably agree on that one. The result was good, but the performance was better. It’s no exaggeration to say that we could have been looking at an even bigger score line based on our domination and the chances we created. All this is a far cry from the Boxing Day match against Bolton. A match where we looked inept and devoid of ideas. A match where we were bullied and little Liam Bridcutt won headers against Charlie Wyke. I would go so far as to say that the performance against Wycombe was probably the best I have seen since we hammered Wolves on our farewell to the Championship.
In some respects that makes no sense. Anybody looking at the team from last season with Cattermole and McGeady would say that team should have been out of sight. Some still argue that with Maja staying we would have been. I’m trying to figure out what went wrong last season theories abound. The sale of Maja, the sitting back to defend a 1-1. Grigg. Ross. There are scapegoats everywhere. Perhaps that’s the wrong approach though. Perhaps a better approach is to look at what has improved. I’m well aware that one swallow does not make a summer but anybody who went to the Wycombe game will tell you there has been a change.
Winding back to just after that Wolves game we gathered at ALS towers and discussed what to expect from League One. The general consensus was big centre halves, big centre forwards, pace, power, shit referees and a lot of bullying. Oh, and the SoL being a cup final for everyone. As we went into that season we had Honeyman, McGeady, Gooch, Oviedo and Cattermole. We added Leadbitter, McGeouch, James. Baldwin came in and Flanagan who, whilst tall, didn’t exactly appear robust. In terms of physicality we were not going to frighten the youth team let alone the big lads in League One who were fired up to put arrogant ex Premier League players in their place.
For 18 months we have played pretty much like a team trying to work out the division. Jack Ross admitted in his interview for the job that he had little knowledge of League One and perhaps suffered a little from imposing a system on style on a league which just treated it as over complicated and steamrollered it into submission.
Finally, against Lincoln in the first half and Wycombe throughout we actually looked like a League one team. For once I say that as a good thing. Gooch was the smallest player in the line ups, but overall we were bigger than Wycombe and it showed. Wyke bullied defenders and took their niggling fouls all match. Gooch and Hume pressing defenders because they know League one defenders are generally quite shit and hate anyone running at them. Apart from Willis who is a cultured defender with an awful lot of presence. We pressed because, finally, we could. The fitness of the players seems to have improved but the mentality appears to have shifted as well.
Lincoln away set the final days in motion for Jack Ross, Lincoln at home seems to have signalled an awakening of sorts. Sunderland now stand every chance of embarking on a serious run of form based on their performance against Wycombe. If we win promotion, I would have some worries about sustainability but for now we’re doing a job in League one. A job we are capable of doing.
We were told to stop being arrogant, to manage expectations as a League One team, to ignore our history. That however was aimed at the fans, not the team. With a functional League One team on Saturday the crowd were vocal. They roared. They shamed the beast. The fans should be arrogant and they shouldn’t forget the history. It’s the players who ignite the fans and now hopefully they have finally understood.
Gareth Ainsworth was very complimentary of the team post match. I think I was guilty of underestimating his humility. He stayed behind at the final whistle to shake the hand of every Sunderland player as they left the pitch. A stark cry from all that “our house” nonsense that came out of Wycombe a while back. That nonsense was exactly the reason why a diminutive team of possession players was always going to struggle in this league playing for this club. The big lads will just give you a kicking.