AFTER dreadful performances and results against QPR and Bradford City in the last week and a half, Sunderland went back to basics at home to West Brom on Saturday and picked up a creditable draw.
Gus Poyet’s men can count themselves unlucky not to have won the game, playing as they did with attacking intent and purpose from the off.
Poyet had called for us supporters to get behind the team at the weekend and he won’t have been disappointed with what was at times a raucous Stadium of Light.
From the opening minute, the crowd was with the team and, during the second half, there were instances of genuine unity between players and fans.
One moment, in particular, stands out in my memory; the immaculate John O’Shea beating his man on the right flank, bursting forward and winning his side a corner in front of the South Stand.
His turn to get away from the West Brom defender and run down the wing was met with a roar and, as he then charged into the box in anticipation of the set-piece delivery, he raised his fist to the crowd, imploring everyone to up the volume.
And up the ante we did, responding to a team that showed its own passion, desire, spirit and at times a smidgen of quality too. Although it was a far from perfect performance and the result ultimately a frustrating one, it was nice to be part of an atmosphere that was generally positive; a world away from the divided contingent at Valley Parade last weekend.
With Lee Cattermole back in the centre of midfield, it felt like the team had its heart back.
His presence, or lack of it in recent weeks, simply cannot be underestimated. His return also played a significant part in getting those disillusioned, dissatisfied supporters on board after Poyet’s call to arms in midweek.
Cattermole’s presence also freed up the always hard-working Sebastian Larsson to show off his passing range; his game was raised after a recent lull in form, aided by the Teessider’s industrious presence.
Danny Graham was another who impressed with his work-rate and movement, while Adam Johnson was once again the man who looked most likely to unlock the tightest of Tony Pulis-organised defences.
Ricky Alvarez was, however, a huge disappointment. His inclusion from the start and the injury situation at the club meant making changes in the second half difficult for Poyet.
In the end, when he did decide to take the on-loan Inter Milan man off, it was to bring on Connor Wickham as an attacking wide player.
Having three out-and-out strikers on the pitch – Steven Fletcher also came on for Danny Graham to partner Jermain Defoe – could have been viewed as a desperate, final throw of the dice, but the system held together and Sunderland continued to be a threat.
Sadly, it just wasn’t to be in front of goal, in part due to some poor officiating, but Poyet has at least been able to re-establish a foundation upon which to build.
That’s been the difficulty this season, defeats following draws and wins with alarming regularity, but, with the fans back onside, or the doubters at least quietened by such a committed performance, these were small but important steps in the right direction.
* The Wise Men Say podcast is available every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction from Gus Poyet. You can stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes.