Sunderland put down promotion marker with victory over Portsmouth
The roar was guttural.
A first league win of the season and against one of the toughest opponents in the league.
A big moment for Sunderland and Jack Ross and above all else, a win they deserved. Yes, they had to ride out pressure late on, and no, Craig MacGillivray was not tested regularly, but the hosts were tenacious and threatening.
Sunderland knew the importance of a win after a frustrating start to their league campaign, but the patterns of these games last season suggested that it would always be tense and tight.
So it proved, the opening exchanges cagey with neither side taking risks in possession.
The scrappy nature of the contest probably suited Portsmouth better, who were comfortable dealing with aerial balls and enjoyed the better of the territory.
Concrete openings were harder to come by, with Ben Close registering the first meaningful effort as he fired over the bar from distance. Jon McLaughlin had to be alert moments later after Conor McLaughlin gifted possession away, racing off his line to clear a chipped pass as John Marquis bore down on goal.
After the opening day Ross had urged his side to be dsiciplined and fight against going a goal behind on home turf, but they were the architects of their downfall as a loose pass from Max Power allowed Marcus Harness to race clear. Alim Ozturk initially did well to cover nad make the challenge, before Marquis failed to connect with the loose ball. Sunderland couldn’t clear, though, and Harness saw his persistence rewarded as he calmly fired past McLaughlin.
Visiting supporters quickly goaded Ross in the dug-out but his side were behind for a matter of minutes.
Grant Leadbitter, tenacious and positive throughout the first half, swung a corner into a dangerous area and Jordan Willis showed tremendous desire to get away from his marker, swooping to head into the far corner.
That goal encouraged the Black Cats and while they were not dominant, they began to frustrate Portsmouth and force them into the kind of aimless balls that they had been playing in the opening exchanges.
The home side took a valuable lead five minutes before the break, Ozturk sending a good long ball into the vacant left channel. McNulty took it down well, and though his pass back inside was poor, Harness fired his attempted clearance straight into the path of Aiden McGeady. The winger needed to invitation to surge to the byline and when he crossed, Chris Maguire had intelligently pulled into space at the back post and had the simplest of finishes.
The second half began with a major problem for the Black Cats, with McNulty pulling up and immediately signalling to the bench as he tried to put pressure on the Portsmouth backline.
Ross opted for Wyke as his replacement, looking to give his side some physical presence up front.
The substitute went close soon after coming on, reading a headed backpass from Lee Brown and almost beating the goalkeeper to it. Moments later, though, he played his side into big trouble when he was bundled off the ball in his own half. Harness released Marquis and the striker had a big chance to score, but connected poorly and fired it well wide.
Portsmouth began to apply pressure in search of an equaliser but it was the Black Cats who had the next opening, Gooch chasing down an O’Nien pass and finding Power, who ran into space before shooting wide on his weaker foot.
A period of sustained pressure followed and forced Kenny Jackett to make a double substitution, switching to a very attacking 4-4-2. Gareth Evans moved onto the left wing and Ellis Harrison joined Marquis up front.
The switch did little to stem the flow of the game, with Sunderland on top and causing problems as their attackers played intelligently off Wyke, who was getting the better of Christian Burgess in their battle.
Jackett changed it again, bringing on Ross McCrorie at full back and a dangerous pass almost brought an equaliser, Ozturk having to make a fine block from Close’s low drive.
McCrorie, the Rangers loanee, was bringing extra quality on the ball and McLaughlin had to be alert to turn away a Leadbitter header as the defender whipped it into a dangerous area.
Portsmouth continued to apply pressure, even though Ross had attempted to keep his side’s attacking threat by bringing on Will Grigg.
McLaughlin, though, was relatively untested, and a fine win was rounded off by a good cameo from Denver Hume, bouncing back from last week’s difficulties to help get his side over the line.
Sunderland XI: McLaughlin; O’Nien, Ozturk, Willis, McLaughlin; Power, Leadbitter; Gooch, Maguire (Hume, 86), McGeady (Grigg, 80); McNulty (Wyke, 49)
Subs: Burge, McGeouch, Flanagan, Dobson
Portsmouth XI: MacGillivray; Walkes (McCrorie, 73), Downing, Burgess, Brown; Naylor, Close; Harness, Cannon (Evans, 62), Curtis (Harrison, 62); Marquis
Subs: Bass, Haunstrup, Raggett, McCrorie, Evans, Pitman
Bookings: Burgess, 75 McGeady, 78 Maguire, 85