SOMETIMES a manager puts his head on the chopping block, knowing that there will be questions asked if he gets it wrong.
Gus Poyet could easily have played it safe and stuck with the same XI against Stoke. After the decent performance against Swansea seven days earlier, no-one would have been surprised.
To drop more than £20million of former Manchester City talent in Adam Johnson and Jack Rodwell was a big call by Poyet. It raised more than a few eyebrows among both press and punters when the team sheet was revealed at 2pm.
But fair play to Poyet. In a game which Sunderland desperately needed to win prior to the international break, he made a decision that reaped hefty rewards.
Jordi Gomez was a typically composed presence in the middle of the park, until he understandably began to tire after the break.
But it was the inclusion of Steven Fletcher - after the Scottish international didn’t even make the matchday squad against Spurs three weeks earlier - which proved to be a master-stroke.
Fletcher has struggled in a Sunderland shirt for the best part of 18 months, even if there were signs during pre-season that he was beginning to look his old self.
Yet the Scottish international’s nine-month goal drought was clearly an issue. For an arch-predator, it has been a confidence-draining barren run.
But Fletcher produced by some distance his best display since the early stages of his Sunderland career.
He made one, scored two and equally impressively, worked tirelessly in tracking back and showed a calmness in possession.
And far from looking out of pace on the left, Wickham was actually an effective foil for Fletcher; tucking inside at every opportunity and producing a stunning run to set up Sunderland’s nerve-quenching third.
Both Wickham and Fletcher will receive a much-needed and hefty massage to their self belief by netting their first Premier League goals of the campaign.
So too will Sunderland from breaking their duck in the wins column.
In truth, a failure to secure a league win prior to the international break would have left some serious questions being asked.
There were a few second half nerves in the Stadium of Light air, yet Sunderland defended well and Stoke never really looked like scoring, even if they enjoyed the lion’s share of possession after the break.
After Sunderland were exposed at the back for Stoke’s equaliser - John O’Shea needlessly backing off Charlie Adam when he needed to press the midfielder - the Black Cats were superbly resilience in the second half, while looking to hit Mark Hughes’ side on the break.
Fletcher’s second cemented the result and Sunderland can relax a touch heading into a tough double header against Southampton and Arsenal, following the fortnight’s hiatus.
A start to the season which had been hanging in the balance can now genuinely be classed as a solid one.
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