Inside the brilliant and chaotic afternoon Sunderland sent their delirious fans tumbling

The key to the limbs is the anticipation.

By Phil Smith
Sunday, 7th August 2022, 12:00 pm

This had not been a straightforward afternoon by any stretch of the imagination but Sunderland had begun to take control, and in the packed away end they were starting to really believe.

Jack Clarke had driven in a low cross and when Ellis Simms met it firmly on the volley, only an outstanding reflex save from Daniel Bentley prevented Sunderland taking the lead.

A sense of inevitability was growing.

Ross Stewart scores Sunderland's winner at Ashton Gate

Nigel Pearson had sensed the direction of travel, Clarke constantly causing problems as Alex Pritchard drifted over to join him in that space between the wing back and right-sided centre back. Pearson changed both, but little changed.

Alex Neil's side had locked Bristol City in their own third, and a game that up until this point had been ragged and wide open was beginning to settle in Sunderland's favour.

A throw-in, and good awareness from Ross Stewart to take it quickly. That driving run from Clarke, and a neat pass to Pritchard. Sunderland's playmaker-in-chief had wasted a few of these crossing opportunities from the left-hand edge of the box, but that meant he now had his range. Stewart had drifted purposefully to the back post and towered above his marker.

Far too easy, Pearson said afterwards. And that was most certainly true. Sunderland were the beneficiary of some woeful defending but there was no hiding the significance of this passage of play, not just because it led to a win but because it demonstrated that this was a side that very clearly belonged.

They sensed it, and so did their support. So when the header dropped in, delirium ensued.

A flawless performance, it was not.

Neil has warned over and over again that there will be bumps in the road this season and you didn't need to look too closely here to see why.

The opening exchanges had been a blur, the head coach emphatically vindicated in his decision to bring in Ellis Simms for a full debut. Bristol City were caught cold, Stewart and Simms pressing every pass. It led to one goal, it could and should have led to another.

But when the pendulum swung it swung quickly and decisively. Before the game Neil had noted that Pearson's side had scored almost half of their goals last season on the counter-attack. When they turned the ball over, and often that was from panicked passing in the Sunderland ranks, they were difficult to contain.

By the end of the game the absence of the experienced Matty James, who had withdrawn in the warm up with a minor injury, looked to be a significant one for a team who had lost their way in the game. In these early moments the drive of his replacement, Han-Noah Massengo, looked like an upgrade.

Neil was indebted to his 'unbelievable' front two, and some poor finishing from his opposition, that his team were able to get through this difficult phase.

He felt that his side were not being brave enough in possession, and that was allowing Bristol City to dictate proceedings.

Simms and Stewart were excellent even when the service was not, feeding off scraps and at times turning into something more.

The key to that second-half shift, Neil said, was that his side stepped out in possession. It made them far more fluid and it forced their opponents to commit players in areas they didn't want to.

Most significantly, it pushed Clarke and Pritchard right up the pitch. When you get players of this quality in the final third, you can see Sunderland's route to consolidation this season far more easily.

Pritchard in particular had turned the game on its head in one moment. It had been a bright start to the second half and that made Bristol City's second all the more frustrating, a simple throw-in that somehow ended up being dragged over the line from a couple of yards out.

It was, Neil said, as soft a goal as you would ever see at this level. And for all his delight with the win, that was clearly still irritating him afterwards.

Pritchard bounced back, a glorious through ball that turned a promising counter into a gilt-edged opening. Simms maybe should have hit it first time, but held his nerve and doubled his tally.

Simms had picked Sunderland over other Championship clubs in part because of the size of the fanbase, the pressure and stature it would bring. Well, now he really saw it, half the advertising boards buckling under the weight of sheer delight. He looked totally thrilled and also a little bemused. Welcome to Sunderland.

Neil talks of his inexperienced side adjusting to a new level and a new intensity, and you could see that in an end to the game that wasn't quite as smooth as it should have been.

There were some slack passes that invited pressure, some cheap free kicks given away. Bristol City could and should have snatched something from it. Dan Ballard made a stunning block to deny Weimann a second, and Martin should have done better from a couple of yards, Joe Williams making a lovely run into the box but one that should have been stopped long before he hit the byline.

As had been the case last Sunday, there were frailties and weaknesses on show from a Sunderland perspective. We knew it already but there will be ups and downs, games that swing in the other direction.

What we do know for sure though is that Sunderland have the capacity to hurt their opposition week in, week out. With four points already on the board, it’s a platform far sturdier than that advertising hoarding.