Luke O’Nien and Grant Leadbitter crucial to keeping Sunderland’s boo boys quiet and getting season back on track
Sunderland’s 13th draw of the season at home to Blackpool resulted in pockets of a restless, frustrated Stadium of Light crowd showing its displeasure.
While it is undoubtedly true that a sizeable portion of the minority of fans who did boo at the final whistle were aiming their anger at referee Carl Boyeson, others had evidently become tired of watching a Sunderland side that continues to labour to draw after draw.
In fairness to Jack Ross and his team, those boos were underserved; Sunderland were immeasurably better than in their previous showing at the Kassam Stadium on Saturday. Arguably, we were lucky to escape with a point from their trip to Oxford Utd, creating next to nothing across a dismal 90 minutes.
Against Blackpool, however, Sunderland began brightly, faded, conceded, then rallied, showing a sense of urgency that has been lacking over a two-month spell in which a second, decisive goal has eluded them in far too many games.
Had Will Grigg been at his clinical best, we’d surely be talking about a win and looking ahead to the Accrington Stanley clash with confidence.
Unfortunately, perhaps buckling under the weight of expectation that comes with a league record fee and a sizeable, demanding, dissatisfied crowd, he fluffed his lines, not once, but twice.
His movement for both opportunities, particularly the second, was superb, and should he find himself in similar space tonight, you’d back him to score.
This is, after all, an Accrington Stanley side whose form is patchy at best; they have not scored away from home since bagging three at Plymouth on December 22 and Sunderland, whose defensive record is one of the best in the division, will look to capitalise.
That said, it would be a surprise to see Ross start with the side that kicked off against Blackpool.
Lynden Gooch looked lost in an unfamiliar central role, while Luke O’Nien returned to right back and, unlike in previous games in the position, looked out of his depth.
It came as a surprise to discover Adam Matthews had not been left out of the squad due to injury. Had he played, he would have offered greater balance and more attacking intent and, crucially, allowed O’Nien to occupy a spot in midfield. That this did not happen, and was both strange and disappointing, as O’Nien has surely earned the opportunity to play in central midfield.
Perhaps O’Nien will get his chance to shine in his natural position against Accrington. Assuming Matthews returns and Gooch is either dropped to the bench or moved to the wing, O’Nien would seem to be the natural choice to slot in alongside George Honeyman, with both pushing on ahead of Grant Leadbitter.
Charlie Wyke was again disappointing as a substitute against Blackpool. O’Nien, as an attacking midfielder, could surely offer at least as much, if not more.
Man of the match on Tuesday night was Grant Leadbitter. In the final half an hour he dictated the game, finally moving further up the pitch.
Playing almost as a third centre back in the first half, his impact was nullified.
Ross must find a way to increase his influence across 90 minutes as his presence will be crucial – three assists in three games already – in guiding Sunderland’s season back on course.