Worry, frustration, excitement & delirium: Inside 72 dramatic Sunderland hours and a sensational win

Phil Smith reports from the Stadium of Light on a superb win for Sunderland

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Amid all the transfer noise Sunderland’s players gathered this week for a meeting to reflect on the opening exchanges of the season.

Four points from four games represented a modest return but backed by a wealth of data analysis, Tony Mowbray and his coaching staff had a point to make to the squad: much of what they were doing was very good. 

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By just about any statistical metric, they had shown the marks of a very good Championship side. Touches in the opposition box, expected goals, expected-goals against, field tilt - all were suggesting something very good could be around the corner.

Where Sunderland were ultimately struggling against their rivals was in the goals for column and well, there are obvious reasons for that.

And yet on the training pitch Mowbray has been hammering home another message, that last season’s impressive sixth-placed finish did not happen by chance but because of the intensity and workrate they demonstrated.

Against a Southampton side absolutely stacked with Premiership quality and set to dominate possession, Mowbray told his side that they would have to show some humility. 

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Mowbray was quietly confident that his side would have their moments in this game but even he would have struggled to predict what would happen. 

That the world of Sunderland AFC is a rollercoaster of emotions is well established by now but even by those standards, the swing from all that transfer concern to the delirium in the Stadium of Light 72 hours later was hard to process.

Everything came together for Sunderland, a good game plan perfectly executed and a little bit of that luck turning. 

Mowbray and his staff had accepted that this would be a rare afternoon in which the opposition were likely to have more of the ball, and they planned their approach accordingly. This time it was Sunderland who broadly let the opposition central defenders sit on the ball, carefully picking their moments to commit to the press.

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When they nicked it back they were direct and incisive, Jack Clarke’s dribbling ability and Abdoullah Ba’s athleticism ruthlessly exploiting the gaps that the visitors left behind.

Underpinning all of this was a tigerish intensity off the ball. Pierre Ekwah and Dan Neil in particular were dominant in their midfield duels, the platform for everything else that followed in the game. Trai Hume and Dennis Cirkin won the majority of their individual duels with talented wingers, so much so that Russell Martin withdrew Samuel Edozie at the break.

In Martin’s post-match press conference he bemoaned the defensive sloppiness that gifted Sunderland two early goals, but made clear from there that the hosts had played with a greater hunger.

It was a win that bore the hallmarks of those vital and impressive wins away from home towards the end of last season, at West Brom and at Norwich City and even the important point at Burnley. In Sunderland’s last two games they have shown that humility Mowbray demanded and their reward has been two clean sheets and an impressive four-point haul.

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There were shades here of those days that followed Alex Neil’s shock departure for Stoke City. Sunderland lost to Norwich City then but they gave every bit as good as they got before sweeping Rotherham United aside a couple of days later.

The strength of those two performances proved cathartic inside the Stadium of Light, a reassurance that the foundations were in place to press on even accounting for a key departure. Then it was Neil, this time it was Ross Stewart. There was even the near-identical sight of some exciting young signings being introduced on the pitch, and some schadenfreude in the chanting from The Roker End.

Given the fraught final few days of the transfer window, this was the release that Sunderland needed.

It won’t always be like this and one of the realities of the approach Sunderland are following is that these swings are almost priced in. When this outrageously young and gifted team cut loose and get the wind in their sails again it will be breathtaking to watch, and the response will be gleeful and the question will be why on earth everyone doesn’t just do it exactly like this. 

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When it gets a little sticky, the question will inevitably be why there isn’t just a touch more experience and why maybe the boat just wasn’t pushed out that little bit further to keep that truly talismanic striker. 

Mowbray was very happy to bask in the glow of this win afterwards but he never veered towards giddiness, knowing that there will be bumps in the road ahead and afternoons when it is his young Sunderland side struggling to find their footing. He has lost a lot of experience and some presence from his dressing room and there are times where that will count for something.

To that end, though it might not be by design on the club’s part, the intelligent cameo from Alex Pritchard in the closing stages of this contest showed how crucial it could be to have him around for the months ahead.

Mowbray, too, was quick to praise the club’s ownership for resisting some significant interest in his players on deadline day. One of those calls was for midfielder Pierre Ekwah, nothing short of imperious in this game.

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And so maybe at the end of a wild 72 hours even in the raucous world of Sunderland AFC, we were able to establish something of a foundation. Regardless of where everyone stands on how Sunderland do things and the aspects that everyone might change were they in charge, what we have here is an exciting Championship side who can compete with anyone. 

And, bumpy as the road may have been to get there, after the international break there will be strikers. Will it be enough to replicate last season's play-off push? We will know more about that once we have seen these new players and where they'll fit into Mowbray's plans. For now, a welcome break after a week that even by Sunderland's standard exhausted and exhilarated.