Simon Grayson’s reign got off to a winning start, but there was only one thing on the minds of all those associated with Sunderland AFC at Bury.
It was an emotional evening following the sad news that six-year-old Bradley Lowery had passed away earlier in the afternoon after a long battle with neuroblastoma.
His smiling image beamed on the giant screen at Gigg Lane throughout the first pre-season friendly, which ended in a 3-2 win for Sunderland, sub Josh Maja at the double to clinch a come-from-behind victory.
Ahead of the game, in a classy gesture, League One club Bury confirmed all gate receipts from the game will go to Bradley’s Fight, a charity set up in the youngster’s name.
There was also a minute’s applause, with the Sunderland players wearing black armbands as a mark of respect for the Blackhall youngster.
Both Sunderland and Bury fans came together to chant ‘One Bradley Lowery’ six minutes in, an emotion-fuelled tribute to a little boy who had captured the heart’s and minds of the nation following his brave fight against cancer.
Tributes flooded in from the great and the good of the sporting world and people across the region and the rest of the world to Bradley, with Sunderland also sharing their own emotional tribute.
Former striker Jermain Defoe enjoyed a strong bond with Bradley, while goalkeeper Vito Mannone also enjoyed a special friendship with the youngster.
A visibly emotional Mannone spoke movingly post-match about his relationship with Bradley and the impact he had on him and the club.
The Italian said: “I had these moments many times in my life – I had it when I lost my father and it hit me the same way.
“Bradley was a special kid, a kid who gave me a lot and I am very honoured to have met him and his family.
“You realise that football is just a game and life is something more. This little boy kept smiling and smiling, everywhere he went he had a smile on his face.
“He gave me so much. Sometimes a child can give you much more than an adult – that is what Bradley did to the world.
“He kept smiling and that was always amazing for me.
“My condolences go to the family. His parents are lovely people and you don’t want these things to happen to lovely people.
“Sometimes I think God realises you have a place up there, I believe so.
“My prayers go to him and his family and I hope they can hug each other and think of the good memories and not the bad episode now, which will last for a while unfortunately.
“All I can say is God bless him.”
There is little riding on pre-season friendly games at this early stage of the programme, aside from building fitness.
And this game felt less important given Bradley’s passing earlier in the day, but there was a game to be played as pre-season kicked off.
Grayson handed starts to Adam Matthews, who spent last season on loan at Bristol City, with Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman in the forward roles.
New signing Brendan Galloway, signed on a season-long loan deal from Everton, was not involved and neither was Joel Asoro after an extended break due to international commitments.
Rees Greenwood had Sunderland’s first sight on goal in the sixth minute, screwing his effort wide of the left-hand post, with skipper Lee Cattermole fizzing a shot just wide moments later.
The hosts took the lead on 19 minutes, Andrew Tutte, with a cushioned finish from the edge of the area, giving Mannone no chance.
Six minutes later, it should have been 2-0. Zeli Ismail got in, but he screwed his attempt past the left-hand post.
The Shakers didn’t have to wait long to double their lead, though. Callum Reilly cut inside Matthews before firing into the top corner in the 27th minute.
Jack Rodwell saw an effort palmed behind by ex-Sunderland stopper Joe Murphy moments later before the Black Cats did halve the deficit in the 37th minute, Rodwell poking home a George Honeyman corner from close range.
The second half was dull, with clear chances or anything of real note very few and far between until sub Maja equalised from close range in the 77th minute.
It was a well-worked goal, with Maja releasing Khazri in the first instance, the Tunisian showing a burst of pace before rolling the ball back to Maja, who scored from six yards.
The comeback was complete in the 86th minute, Denver Hume with the cross to the back post and Maja with a clinical volley to seal the win.
Don’t read too much into friendlies, that’s always the message from managers, especially the first game of pre-season.
This was Sunderland and Bury’s opening pre-season friendly and it wasn’t much more than a competitive training match, with both sides making widespread changes in the second half.
With so many subs, it is always impossible to build any sort of rhythm to the play, making it equally hard to judge the players.
Grayson will have learned a fair bit, though, seeing his Sunderland squad in action for the first time in a competitive environment.
Though, there will be plenty he already knows too – that the squad is woefully short of experienced players ahead of the Championship campaign and strikers. Sunderland need strikers soon.
Honeyman and Gooch started the game up front, with Maja – the only recognised striker in the squad – coming on at half-time.
Bringing in firepower up front remains the priority ahead of pre-season stepping up a notch with the trio of games in Scotland, starting with Hibernian in Lewis Stevenson’s Testimonial at Easter Road tomorrow (2pm).
Bury first half: Murphy, Edwards, Aldred, O’Connell, Skarz, Ismail, Tutte, Dai, Reilly, Vaughan, Beckford.
Bury second half: Letheren, Jones, Leigh, Thompson, Dawson, Mayor, Cameron, Humphrey, Miller, O’Shea, Lowe.
Goals: Tutte (19), Reilly (27)
Sunderland: Mannone (Mika 45), Jones (Love 45), Kone (Ledger 60), Djilobodji (Beadling 60), Matthews (T Robson 45), Cattermole (Gibson 45), Molyneux (Khazri 45), Rodwell (E Robson 45), Greenwood (Maja 45), Gooch (Hume 60), Honeyman (Gamble 60)
Goals: Rodwell (37), Maja (77, 86)
Booked: Djilobodji (41), T Robson (69)
Referee: Darren Handley (Bolton)
Attendance: 2,110 (724 visitors)