Sunderland youngsters show the way ahead for Chris Coleman

Chris Coleman was in no mood to get carried away.

Monday, 22nd January 2018, 9:10 am
Sunderland players mob scorer Joel Asoro.

The Sunderland boss cut a hugely satisfied, but by no means jubilant figure, as he picked through the bones of Saturday’s occasionally fraught but utterly heartening 1-0 win.

He has been here before. The general curve since his arrival has been unmistakably upward, but each win has been followed by disappointment.

As Billy Jones succinctly put it last week, when Sunderland are bad, they are absolutely awful.

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Stall again at Birmingham – in the next match on January 30 – and the Black Cats will find themselves facing familiar questions.

Coleman, too, was eager not to deflect from the need to add reinforcements in the coming days.

This was a fine win and he was overjoyed with the performances from the likes of Josh Maja, Joel Asoro and Ethan Robson, but consistency will be the key and finding it with so many youngsters in the team each week will not be easy.

It will not be lost on Coleman that the last time Sunderland faced Steve Cotterill’s Birmingham, a youthful side lost their shape in the closing stages as the 10-man Blues held on for a point.

There will be ups and downs but a touch more experience, in the mould of John O’Shea and Lee Cattermole, who were outstanding against Hull, can help Sunderland produce performances of this discipline more regularly. It remains a crucial window.

And yet.

There is no mistaking the spike in Sunderland’s attacking output in this game after two demoralising defeats in which Coleman’s side had barely laid a glove on their opponents.

A ragged Hull City are not in Middlesbrough or Cardiff’s class currently, but it was refreshing to see the Black Cats get at the visitors’ back four with genuine flair and pace.

There were two crucial changes that underpinned this impressive display.

First, and both Cattermole and Coleman were keen to underline this point after the game, Sunderland did the basics well and grafted their way through difficult phases .

They made countless interceptions and clearances, were competitive and outran their opponents, particularly in a first half that both surprised and overjoyed the home faithful.

There have not been many occasions in recent times when it has been Sunderland who looked visibly hungrier for the result than their opponents. It was truly refresing to watch.

As pleasing as the technical quality of the young players in the side was their willingness to compete and the way they stood up to the physical challenge.

Ethan Robson set the tone, tidy in possession but often getting the better of experienced former Sunderland man David Meyler in the challenge.

Truly, there have been few more composed and impressive full home debuts than his at the Stadium of Light, either from academy graduates or multi-million pound signings.

Secondly, a slight alteration to the system from the manager also helped bring the best of the side and gave it much a better balance.

3-4-3 became 3-5-2, with Maja and Asoro given the licence to be direct and attack central areas.

George Honeyman – whose energy and personality Coleman said, after the game, Sunderland ‘always need’ – moved infield and offered real drive on the ball.

Where in recent weeks the Black Cats have been lacklustre in attack, here they were purposeful and having players in key areas who could carry the ball at pace made all the difference.

Maja, with so little to work with in recent weeks, constantly had bodies in support and it stretched Hull time and time again.

It is worth dwelling on that 20th-minute matchwinning goal for just a moment more.

A superb challenge from Cattermole, a divine one-two between Honeyman and Maja, the former perfectly teeing up Asoro, whose finish was emphatic past keeper Allan McGregor.

All this inside a minute.

A breathtaking counter-attacking goal, full of heart and vision.

It was only a small step in terms of the table, but, for many watching on, it felt something bigger.

Whisper it quietly, but this was a fun afternoon at the Stadium of Light.