How Chris Coleman saw Sunderland through the first mini-crisis of his tenure

The team sheet drew a strange mix of delight and trepidation.

Wednesday, 24th January 2018, 11:00 am
Sunderland youngster Ethan Robson.

After a period in which players not wanting to be at the club dominated the headlines, it was refreshing to see Chris Coleman back up his words by selecting a youthful side.

There was pride at a first home start for Ethan Robson, who has been at the club since the age of eight, and excitement that Josh Maja and Joel Asoro were being given the chance to influence the game as a genuine partnership through the middle.

Ha'way Back When in association with John Hogg Funeral Directors

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Such a thing is rare in the modern game and even in U23s football, one has generally had to drop deep or move out to the wing to accommodate the other.

On the other hand, there were clear concerns about the lack of experience in the side, particularly off the back of three utterly limp displays against Barnsley, Middlesbrough and Cardiff City.

Before kick-off many would have looked at the Hull City team sheet and wished that Sunderland could still call upon the three experienced former Black Cats named.

That run of three defeats to start the year had taken their toll and the mood that had been lifted so greatly by Coleman’s arrival had regressed.

Ha'way Back When in association with John Hogg Funeral Directors

Defensively, the side had slipped back into old habits and in attack they were offering little, the centre-forward isolated in a manner that recalled bad memories of toothless Premier League performances.

The injury list was severe and not abating.

Lewis Grabban and James Vaughan had departed and while neither were particularly mourned behind the scenes, it left the Black Cats light and sparked fears that the club could be left weakened, rather than strengthened, by the winter window.

By Friday morning, Coleman arrived to preview the game, frustrated that a new striker had not arrived and that the Jack Rodwell saga had continued to rumble on through the week.

The Black Cats boss was far from downbeat, however, and offered a positive tone on the transfer picture in general, vowing to focus fully on the crucial game against the Tigers and to find solutions in his depleted options.

Just over 24 hours later and the picture looked far better, a resolute display seeing him through the first mini-crisis of his tenure.

The 3-4-3 that had floundered in recent game was tinkered and the Black Cats boss found a system that gave his team real outlets in attack.

Robson, Maja and Asoro all showed that they can be trusted and play a genuine part. Lee Cattermole, despite still searching for match fitness, was excellent and Jake Clarke-Salter also delivered an assured display.

All over the pitch there were positives, but perhaps the biggest was in the stand, the atmosphere in the last half an hour perhaps as good as it has been since the opening night of the season.

The energy and intensity on the pitch rubbed off and perhaps the off-the-pitch headlines in the days previous had a galvanising effect.

Coleman’s message to focus on those who were showing for him and the club was heartily heeded, particularly in the moments when the largely insipid Hull put the young side on the ropes.

Afterwards, the Sunderland boss was as calm and resolute as he had been in the weeks previous.

This performance did not alter the need for new recruitments and it certainly did not lift Sunderland away from trouble, was his message.

That much is true, and he knows full well that a disappointing end to the window and a poor performance at Birmingham will see memories of this fine win quickly banished to memory.

Nevertheless, the way the first real downturn in results was turned into a fine win with options low offers real hope that Sunderland can survive this fraught season under Coleman’s charge.