Phil Smith: Sunderland give Simon Grayson some breathing space with battling display at Preston

In isolation, Saturday's 2-2 draw at Preston was the kind of Championship afternoon that Sunderland fans had begrudgingly accepted they might enjoy after an often tortuous 10 years in the Premier League came to an end.

Monday, 2nd October 2017, 10:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 4th October 2017, 9:37 am
Preston North End FC 2-2 Sunderland AFC 30-09-2017. Picture by FRANK REID

It was an end-to-end contest in which Sunderland more than competed. They set up in an attacking formation, created chances, tested the oppositon keeper and stretched the opposition defence.

A vocal away support, indeed an outstanding following given what had happened at Portman Road four days previously, responded appreciatively.

Of course, in context, it was a point that was really not enough.

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To be second-bottom after 11 games, with a paltry seven points and just one win, is yet another sub-standard start to a season.

The Black Cats are playing catch-up again and talk of late-season excitement at the top end of the table already feels fanciful in the extreme.

To that end, many will have little interest talking up the positives of a combative, heartening display from the Black Cats and that is fair enough.

Surely this is the bare minimum in every game.

Even if Sunderland have not invested much in the way of transfer fees, they still run a large wage bill for this level and have players who had been visibly under-performing.

Regardless, this performance is clearly a significant one for Simon Grayson.

Ending the dug-out turnover has always been a central tenet of Martin Bain’s stated search for footballing stability, and he would have been loath in the extreme to make a change at this point.

Another cataclysmic display, before a two-week lay-off for the international break, would have made for a difficult inquest, however.

Now, Grayson will get the time and space he desperately needs to make good on his promise to improve this side on the training pitch.

While frustrations remain, none could argue that his team did not play and compete for him at Deepdale, and, on the balance of play, they would have been more than worthy of three points.

Grayson’s call to drop Lamine Kone was rewarded by a defensive display that fell far from perfect but offered greater resilience and greater communication.

The players looked instantly more comfortable in a 4-4-2 system and his faith in youngsters Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman was rewarded when the pair combined in fine fashion for the opening goal.

All over the pitch, there were significant improvements.

The gap to the top half of the table is now nine points, one that simply must be cut by the time the next international break begins in just over a month.

Key to that will be producing this level of performance consistently, most crucially on home turf.

Sunderland’s away form this season has been mid-table level, reflected in their performance at Deepdale.

It is their home form that has put them in relegation trouble and games against QPR, Bristol City and winless bottom club Bolton Wanderers in October must herald the start of something better.

For that, Grayson needs to find a way to extract this level of commitment from his experienced players on a more regular basis, and hope that his growing attacking options can help him to find a winning formula at home.

To that end, the return of Duncan Watmore – as a sub at Preston – offered great encouragement, the 23-year-old seemingly losing none of his bravery, pace or work ethic during his long lay-off.

His return offered an uplifting end to another turbulent month.

This much-improved display faw from draws a line under the Portman Road debacle, but it offers some breathing space for more vital improvements to be made.