Football returned to the Stadium of Light on Saturday for the start of the new season, as Sunderland welcomed Oxford United. Despite the antics of last season, there was still a very positive atmosphere around the ground, a sense of optimism but mainly expectation. Sunderland were unable to beat Oxford last season, with two 1-1 draws against the side who ended the season in a steady 12th position in League 1.
Summer signings Conor McLaughlin, Jordan Willis, George Dobson and Marc McNulty all made their league debuts with the Black Cats, in a very questionable yet capable Sunderland starting eleven. Tom Flanagan started at the back, with Alim Ozturk on the bench even though he impressed towards the end of last season. Denver Hume also made his way into the first team as both Bryan Oviedo and Reece James have departed the club, so it was a great opportunity for Denver to prove his worth.
Dylan McGeouch started in midfield, with future captain Grant Leadbitter on the bench and Max Power also missing out due to fitness reasons. Lynden Gooch earned a place, and youngster Elliot Embleton made his first start for the club. Will Grigg and McNulty lead the line for Sunderland, and Jon McLaughlin was captain for the game following George Honeyman’s departure. The bench was extremely strong with Chris Maguire, Luke O’Nien, Duncan Watmore, Grant Leadbitter and Aiden McGeady all ready to come on, if called upon.
The game commenced and Fosu was gifted the first real opportunity for Oxford as he snuck in behind the Sunderland backline, but has shot was dragged wide of the goal. Sunderland responded with some tremendous link up play from Marc McNulty and Elliot Embleton, resulting in a brilliant stop from Simon Eastwood to keep the score level at 0-0. Eventually, after a very shaky start, Oxford were able to break the deadlock as Fosu calmly fired passed Jon McLaughlin after a loss of possession in midfield, 0-1 Oxford. The score was almost doubled as Rob Dickie headed in powerfully from an Oxford corner, but it was quickly ruled out for a foul on the goalkeeper. The teams went in for the break and the Sunderland supporters were understandably far from impressed after an extremely poor performance and great confusion as to what the set up was, with Sunderland repeatedly exposed on the left side of defence.
However, just four minutes into the second half Lynden Gooch was tripped in the penalty area, and converted the spot-kick perfectly to level the score at 1-1, giving the players encouragement from the Sunderland faithful. Duncan Watmore was then introduced from the bench, giving Sunderland a slightly more direct approach and some more pace in front of goal, although he was unable to cause any serious problems for their back line. Jack Ross then subbed on Aiden McGeady, followed by Chris Maguire in a desperate attempt to snatch a winner, but the game ended all square with yet another 1-1 stalemate.
It was a great opportunity for the new lads to get their first real taste of playing on Wearside. Although, it wasn’t the ideal start to the season, this result isn’t embarrassing considering Oxford have brought in some very promising players this window. However, there are clear weaknesses and areas that need strengthening before the transfer window shuts, and Jack Ross still appears uncertain in terms of his favoured line-up and formation.
Sunderland travel to Portman Road next Saturday to face recently relegated Ipswich Town, in what will be a huge insight towards what to expect for the 19/20 season. One thing is certain, there is no time to relax!