You can dissect the entire Sunderland squad and pick faults with every one of them, but let’s cut to the chase; Sunderland’s number one issue this season is once again between the sticks.
It almost feels like déjà vu at the Stadium of Light, as though somebody has cruelly turned back time to the 2017-18 campaign where goalkeeping gaffes were as regular as clockwork with the trio of Jason Steele, Robbin Ruiter and Lee Camp – three names that will forever send a shudder down the spine of Sunderland supporters.
It is a position which has over the years been occupied by solid and safe pairs of hands on Wearside but, excluding a cameo season from Jon McLaughlin, the last five years has been somewhat of a graveyard for the number one jersey at Sunderland.
When McLaughlin departed for Rangers last summer it always felt as though the club would need a new goalkeeper. Lee Burge came in during the summer of 2019 under Jack Ross as back up to McLaughlin but despite making 140 appearances for Coventry City there were question marks as to whether he had the capabilities of stepping up should the uncertain future of McLaughlin come to a head, even based one the evidence he displayed when winning 5-4 at the Stadium of Light with City.
The former Sky Blues keeper made his debut alongside Phil Parkinson in the defeat to Wycombe Wanderers and would make four further league appearances that campaign before being handed the number one shirt in place of the outgoing Scotland stopper this term. Parkinson went to his old club Bolton Wanderers in search of competition for Burge in the shape of Remi Matthews, which again raised alarm bells if you consider just how torrid a time Matthews had at the University of Bolton Stadium given the club’s struggles and goals against column, not that they were all Matthews fault of course, but you have to ask what a situation like that does to a goalkeeper’s confidence?
While neither goalkeeper are an improvement on McLaughlin, at least there were two keepers with league experience on the books. But concerns were heightened on the opening day of the season when inside three minutes Burge produced his first error of the campaign.
An innocuously floated freekick came into the penalty area and found Burge drifting into the unpleasant goalkeeping territory of ‘no-mans-land’ before he flapped at the feet of Jayden Mitchell-Lawson conceding a penalty and an early lead. A disastrous start to the new season and a sign of things to come, unfortunately.
Since then, Burge has played solidly, but still had a hand in a number of goals in the against column for Sunderland and has failed to instil much confidence in supporters, or indeed his centre backs in front of him.
The opening goal of the defeat to Portsmouth, while from close range, seemed relatively simple for Marcus Harness to roll the ball into the corner. Harsh? Ok, what about Jack Lankester’s equalising strike for Ipswich Town at the Stadium of Light a couple of weeks later? Lankester fired a decent strike at Burge but given the angle he was on, and the good position Burge had put himself in, it should have been a fairly comfortable stop. Instead, Burge got a weak hand to it and merely pushed it into the far side of the net. Fortunately, on that occasion it did not result in any dropped points thanks to a late Grant Leadbitter penalty.
The selection of errors coupled with some poor distribution and a general lack of confidence being injected from the back, Parkinson made the decision to replace Burge with his summer recruit, Matthews, for the visit of MK Dons. While not at fault, Matthews was forced to pick the ball out of his net twice on his league debut in a harrowing loss. Two weeks later and Parkinson was gone but Matthews retained his place under interim manager Andrew Taylor for the visit of Burton Albion where he would drop his first notable mistake. With little else on, Brewers midfielder Joe Powell took a strike from range, straight down the throat of Matthews. Inexplicably however, Matthews made a mess of smothering the ball instead fumbling into the path of Charles Vernam to easily fire home. It would lead to another two points dropped.
Lee Johnson’s arrival meant a clean slate for Burge and he was given the gloves once more over a fairly inactive Christmas period before he once again grabbed the headlines for the wrong reasons in the home draw with promotion rivals Hull City. George Honeyman’s freekick should have been gathered with ease but was instead dropped into the path of Reece Burke to tap into an empty net. Maybe the knock Burge suffered moments prior to the goal impaired his vision somewhat but nevertheless this was still a goalkeeping error and a costly one.
By this point the faith in either goalkeeper was dwindling with Burge beaten twice more at home to Plymouth Argyle, both times through him at his near post, before a poor parry from Scott Fraser’s long range strike at MK Dons recently resulted in an equaliser from Joe Mason. It led to Johnson making the decision to bench Burge once more in favour of Matthews ahead of Tuesday’s trip to Shrewsbury Town. Little more than a spectator in the first half, Matthews’ mishap in the second half when miserably failing to deal with Doanld Love’s cross allowing Ethan Ebanks-Landell to equalise became the catalyst for Sunderland’s first away defeat of the season. Matthews was fortunate the linesman’s flag was raised when somehow allowing Sean Gross’ freekick to slide under him, but he still ultimately costs us the game.
In total you can argue Sunderland’s two goalkeepers have been at fault for 11 points being dropped this season – possibly more if you’re being overly critical. Without those errors, and 11 points on the board instead, Sunderland would be joint top in the League One table.
It is fine margins and of course the problems at the club run much deeper than two goalkeepers, or why we let McLaughlin go in the first place, but the importance of being able to bestow your faith as a supporter, as a defender in front of them and as a manager in the number one position of the field cannot be overlooked and at the moment Sunderland don’t have that.
Had either of Simon Grayson or Chris Coleman had a reliable pair of hands between the posts in the Championship campaign then it’s a pretty safe bet to assume the club would not have been relegated to League One. Now it’s looking like a dependable goalkeeper may well be the difference between promotion, the play-offs, or finishing mid table.
Where does Johnson go from here is anyone’s guess as he clearly does not believe in either of his first-choice goalkeepers. It begs the question as to why the position was not given greater concern and focus during the January window. Could reserve keeper Anthony Patterson be worth giving a go? It is at this point you would normally say: ‘surely he can’t be worse,’ but given what happened with Messrs Steele, Camp and Ruiter you would be naïve to suggest otherwise.
It’s a problem, and a big one for Sunderland, as the season continues to derail with the end result continually looking like a fourth year at this level.