Phil Smith's verdict: The telling League One results that reinforced a key Jack Ross message after Sunderland win

Jack Ross had warned pre-match that this would not be easy.

Wednesday, 21st August 2019, 16:45 pm

He was effusive in his praise for Rochdale boss Brian Barry-Murphy and it quickly became apparent why.

The Irishman is improving his squad immeasurably and right from the off, they moved the ball with bravery, composure and precision.

There were always options on the ball, midfielders dropping deep to gather and finding joy when moving the ball into the channels.

Sunderland moved into a play-off place with a 2-1 win over Rochdale

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Sunderland did not find it easy, just like the four previous opponents Rochdale had faced in competitive action this season.

The Black Cats were the first to beat them.

Ross has consistently challenged the perception, this season and last, that his team should be dominating this division and winning games by an emphatic margin over and over again.

So his message to his players was simple.

After two wins in two, a leap up the table, and a return to the two point-per-game benchmark: enjoy it.

“We spoke about the need for momentum before the game, and we’ve got a bit of it now,” he said.

“When you get it, it can be powerful, you’ve just got to be pushing it along because once it stops, it can be difficult to get it started again. We’ve got it at the minute, starting the season unbeaten and having these three wins.

“I think confidence is growing amongst the players, and I’ve told them to enjoy it.

“They’ve got high standards, and there’s a lot that goes with the perception of what they should be doing in this league as well, but just because you’ve only won 2-1 away from home and it’s been a tough game, doesn’t make it any less significant than if you win 3-0 and play brilliantly, it’s just urging them to enjoy it and then we prepare for Saturday.”

Ross will know that his players can improve, and significantly at that.

He was a very pleased manager at the end but during the first half, he had cut a frustrated and concerned figure.

He had planned for Rochdale potentially having plenty of the ball and was comfortable with that in principle. The idea was that they could nick the ball in dangerous areas and that did happen occasionally.

The home side played through them too easily, however, and Sunderland lacked the same composure on the ball.

Post-match, Ross again drew reference to a soft goal conceded, and the need to turn the improving defensive play (at the heart of defence at least) into the clean sheets he believes are absolutely vital.

And while recognising it is a reality of life in League One, he also felt a nervy closing period could have been avoided had his side shown a touch more poise in the spell after they had taken the lead.

Unquestionably, there is more to come from this side but any analysis of Rochdale’s impressive display, and that it truly was, has to be balanced against the fact that in terms of clear cut chances, there was not a great deal between the two until the expected siege right at the very end.

Sunderland scored two excellent goals and Ross made two very good substitutions to help his side get ahead and stay there.

Bringing on a second centre-forward disrupted the home side’s rhythm in playing out from the back and it was just moments after Will Grigg entered the pitch that he played his part in the winning goal.

An intelligent cameo from Dylan McGeouch also brought some much-needed calm on the ball and until the final moments, prevented his side going too long, too early as they protected a lead.

Sunderland have much to improve, without a doubt.

They are capable of keeping and using the ball far, far better than they did in the first half, and defending with a far better shape when the opposition had the ball.

Yet they were the only side in the division to take six points from this double-header and even more significantly than that, this was their first back-to-back league win since the last time they were at Spotland, a week after the Checkatrade Trophy final.

That day, George Honeyman’s late winner had seemingly given them the advantage in the race for automatic promotion.

They couldn’t capitalise, and Ross will hope that these last two victories are a sign that they can go one better this time around.

It will not be an easy league again this year but that applies to every one of Sunderland’s promotion challengers.

It was telling that in this round of fixtures, every one of the early pacesetters and promotion favourites dropped points.

Portsmouth could not put away nine-man Coventry, Fleetwood needed a last-minute equaliser to avoid consecutive defeats.

Lincoln were beaten by MK Dons and Blackpool had to fight back from two goals down to rescue a point at Gillingham.

League One will be a competitive league and grinding out victories in tight games will be of paramount importance.

Without a doubt, Sunderland will have to produce more controlled and confident performances to go up automatically, but they have now a strong platform to build on and if one this is clear, it is that the resilience that took them so close last season is still very much there.