How an unsung star of Sunderland's unbeaten run settled a key debate for Lee Johnson

At the start of this unbeaten run, in which Sunderland have relaunched their automatic promotion ambitions and ended a 48-year wait for a win at Wembley, Lee Johnson made a key decision.

Tuesday, 16th March 2021, 10:00 am
Lee Burge celebrates with the Papa John's Trophy
Lee Burge celebrates with the Papa John's Trophy

At Shrewsbury Lee Burge had surprisingly dropped out the side and speaking afterwards, Johnson was clear that it was a tactical call.

"There was no injury to Lee," he said.

"I just made a selection decision. It was a difficult one – what do you do now?"

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With Remi Mattews struggling in that 2-1 defeat, the call he made was to restore Burge to the starting XI and his response has been excellent.

Sunderland's defensive organisation has gone from strength to strength and increasingly, the goalkeeper has had little to do. Which has made it all the more important than in the moments he is called upon, Burge has been ready to make his mark.

Throughout this run, he has done exactly that.

Against Doncaster Rovers the game looked to be won in the first half but two penalty saves snuffed out any possibility of a comeback.

At Burton Albion, the home side came out from the interval 2-0 down but determined to apply some pressure. Jonny Smith was a major threat as he cut in from the right and when he rifled an effort towards goal, a stunning save from Burge to his left turned the ball onto the bar and away from danger.

There was a crucial save at Crewe Alexandra when Sunderland were 2-0 down and almost out, going on to rescue a point in the dying embers.

Perhaps most important of all was the save against Swindon Town.

It had been a hard-fought encounter in which Swindon showed little ambition but defended resolutely. Deep in the second half a set piece goal edged the Black Cats into a precious lead, but it was almost cancelled out just minutes later.

Scott Twine's excellent pass on the half-turn carved open an unsuspecting defence, substitute Hallam Hope making a run that wasn't tracked.

He looked certain to score, but Burge raced off his line to make a vital block.

It's the crucial role of a goalkeeper in a side hoping to push for automatic promotion: to maintain concentration through large swathes of the game where the action is happening high up the pitch around you, to be alert in the rare moments when others switch off, and to deal with hopeful balls into the box with calmness.

It was the role Jon McLaughlin played to perfection for the Black Cats and the kind of pose that had been missing through the early stages of the season.

Burge's Wembley performance felt like another step in his recent journey.

Tranmere Rovers had impressed in the first half but in truth they had failed to carve any significant openings. That changed in the early moments of the second period when Otis Khan surged forward from right back, beating Callum McFadzean and Luke O'Nien. His effort looked to be arrowing into the top corner but there was Burge to make a fine stop.

Before long, Sunderland were ahead.

At full time the stopper embraced O'Nien, arguably the two best players in a tense triumph.

The debate over Sunderland's goalkeeping position has been comprehensively settled.

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