Inside the encouraging cameo that could prove to be hugely significant for Lee Johnson and Sunderland

The significance of this debut went beyond the headline act.

Friday, 19th March 2021, 10:10 am

It was some leap from Ross Stewart. Questionable goalkeeping perhaps, but a defining contribution nevertheless, breaking open the kind of tense game that can slow the momentum of a promotion push.

What was notable about Stewart's second half cameo, was the way it highlighted the importance of the role he has to play in the coming weeks.

Sunderland supporters will know the perils of reading too much into a lively debut cameo (take Rade Prica, for example), but there was heart to be taken from the way the former Ross County striker linked up play and occupied defenders.

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Part of it was the unique challenge of the night.

On a poor pitch and against an imposing opponent, Sunderland made a calculation that they would have to be more direct.

Carl Winchester, who excelled throughout, spoke of the perils of taking too many touches on a surface where the risk of getting caught was high.

So the Black Cats knew that they would have to go from back to front quicker, and that the best way to build pressure was to hit the channels with regularity.

In short, it was the perfect half for the lesser-seen 'big man, big man' combination.

It's a partnership we may well see more of, though, even in conditions where Sunderland play their more natural game.

The conventional wisdom when Stewart arrived was that he would provide cover/competition for Charlie Wyke and to an extent, that was of course the case.

With Will Grigg and Danny Graham struggling for rhythm, it was clear that Lee Johnson would need to freshen up his striking options.

It felt as if the Black Cats were an injury to Wyke away from being left significantly short of firepower and that has remained the case, to an extent at least, through this recent run.

Johnson believes that the amount of defensive work Stewart had to do in a struggling Ross County side masked his attacking potential, and it is clear that the Head Coach would have no qualms asking him to lead the line.

When Johnson speaks of Stewart's attributes, though, it's clear that he sees him as someone who can partner Wyke more regularly.

He talks of Stewart's ability to stretch the play, chase his own flick-ons, and an athleticism that will suit the new counter-pressing style.

In short, he is a player who can replicate not just Wyke's role, but Aiden O'Brien's.

The Irishman has been a perhaps underrated player in Sunderland's revival. His contributions are not always eye-catching but he has played a crucial role in creating space for Wyke and his team-mates.

He backs up Wyke in the press, occupies defenders and gives team-mates and outlet when under pressure by moving into the channels.

In his absence, the Black Cats have often struggled with the balance of their side and Wednesday evening was an example of that, Wyke often left to battle against three centre-halves on his own.

The demands of Sunderland's schedule makes injury setbacks and rotation an inevitability.

Stewart's arrival is timely as it means that even while rotating, Johnson has a better chance of keeping the balance of his side in place.

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