Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland's hangover lifts on a significant day on and off the pitch

That there would be one or two special guests in attendance was no secret.

Sunday, 25th August 2019, 12:00 pm
Updated Sunday, 25th August 2019, 12:17 pm

Jack Ross, unusually, even put a tie on.

Though when pressed by Nick Barnes afterwards, he insisted that was only because he’d been told he looked a bit scruffy before he left the house.

No matter. Everyone was out to impress.

Potential new investors John Phelan and Robert Platek watch on as Sunderland beat AFC Wimbledon

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Put on a bit of a show, fans had urged. That they did.

The strains of Wise Men Say were just that little bit louder, the roar at kick-off just that little more fevered.

For half an hour, there was that heartening synergy as Sunderland played the vibrant, fluid football that has slowly been improving since the difficult early days of the season.

They passed it well, but it was noticeable too that with Charlie Wyke right at it, there was a concerted effort to be direct at the right moments.

AFC Wimbledon struggled to live with it as the creative players picked up dangerous areas around the target man.

The one frustration was all that ball in dangerous areas had created only one goal and few real efforts that drew goalkeeper Nathan Trott into action.

They were punished when the away side levelled ten minutes before the interval, that early momentum checked.

It spoke volumes about the growing confidence in the dressing room, though, that the second half brought another step up in tempo and an increased ruthlessness.

The away side were on the back foot throughout and the Black Cats could have scored far more than the two they eventually did.

It was a firm riposte to any nagging frustrations about their ability to build spells of pressure and create chances in the box.

Though Ross had praised his players for winning ugly during the week (and Rochdale’s clean sheet and draw against Blackpool on Saturday underlined their early-season quality), he knew that such a controlled performance was significant.

“Winning the game was what mattered but doing it in the way that we did was very pleasing, it could have been more emphatic in terms of the scoreline but I was pleased with the overall performance,” he said.

“I’m pleased for the players. The only times when I am critical of them I am critical openly - the first half against Ipswich this season, and the Southend game last season.

But for the last 13 months they have given me everything and they did that again and they played well.

“They were really effective and relentless in trying to create and win the game.

“If anything, they were a bit frustrated that they didn’t score more goals.”

John Phelan and Robert Platek can only have been impressed by what they say, on and off the pitch.

Given that sense of a big afternoon, a significant occasion, perhaps it was no surprise that it was Chris Maguire who stepped up.

He relished these moments and delivered in emphatic style.

What is so heartening about Maguire’s form at the moment, though, is not the quality he is showing in the final third.

It was a glorious chip to beat Trott early on, a fine header to seal the hat-trick, but these flashes in and around the box are what he is always capable of.

What is crucial is that at the moment, he is matching it with an impressive work-rate that is allowing Ross to get attacking players on the pitch without losing too much shape off the ball.

In that sense, perhaps his most notable intervention was the moment he tracked a Wimbledon defender right back to the halfway line, pinching the ball and releasing McGeady into space.

McGeady found Wyke who came close to scoring the goal that at stage would have put the game to bed.

Ross noted it, post-match.

“Chris can be a little bit of an enigma at times but he has real quality about his play and with the quality he has, he should always be in my team,” he said.

“I speak a lot about it to him, and tell him he needs to do the other side of the game as well - and in fairness to him, he has been doing that side of it really well just recently.

“And when he is doing that other side of the game well, that is when he produces his best quality.”

With the potential new investors in the stands and a rhythm growing on the pitch, it was tempting to feel as if the hangover from last season’s eventual disappointment is just beginning to lift.

Ross is getting key players back to peak fitness.

There is a continuinty in selection that can only lead to improved consistency of performance.

And the Black Cats boss had one final bit of good news on an afternoon that supporters couldn’t help but enjoy.

He hopes to seal a deal for a new left-back this week, and is close to adding Joel Lynch to his squad.

His current centre-back options are impressing, but is a long season and it can only be a benefit to have another physical, experience centre-back at this level, one who was played week in, week out at a good level for a number of seasons.

There is no room for complacency, of course.

An away tie at burnley is followed by a trip to resurgent Peterborough, who trashed MK Dons 4-0 away from home on Saturday, in arguably the most eye-catching result of the day.

Sunderland, though, are looking in increasingly good fettle themselves.