Phil Smith’s SAFC analysis: Sunderland alive and kicking with an opening-night point

Jason Steele makes a crucial late save to ensure a point for Sunderland. Picture by Frank Reid.
Jason Steele makes a crucial late save to ensure a point for Sunderland. Picture by Frank Reid.
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This was a far more fitting tribute to the Stadium of Light.

Not a result that will live long in the memory, probably not even a game that will be particularly well remembered.

Fail to back it up in the coming games, and it is not a point that will stand for much.

That caution aside, it was a night when the team took a significant step back towards a support weary from years of toil and a surprisingly acriminous final week of pre-season.

The fans returned the favour. Songs not heard for many a month, not properly anyway – things can only get better, wise men say, even one or two about Alan Shearer – were aired with gusto in an end-to-end second half.

A proper game, and a proper atmosphere.

The sea of red seats visible at kick-off told a story, a sign to Simon Grayson of how much work is to be done to get the club back on its feet and back to where it belongs.

Those who did came, however, were buoyed by a Sunderland team that set off on the front foot, and, for the most part, stayed there.

What a difference to the atmosphere it makes when rather than seeing their team camped deep in their own half, watching a Premier League team knock the ball around, the support can see their team winning headers early on, competing for second balls.

Lee Cattermole was at his snarling best, snapping at heels and even joining a number of his teams attacks. Derby had an extra man in midfield, but, in the first half, it was not obvious.

Grayson’s selection was attacking and it was almost rewarded with a first opening day win for many a year.

The concerns remain numerous.

It says much about the depth of the squad that the manager did not feel there was any real point in making a substitution. Given that many of his players were flagging and Derby were clearly growing in confidence, it underlines the need for reinforcements.

As well as Sunderland played for much of the contest, they could easily have lost it in the final stages.

Chris Martin sliced over with the goal gaping, and, on a number of occasions, the final ball was misplaced when men were on the overlap and the Black Cats’ defence was exposed.

The back four is still far from a settled unit. The difference in Lamine Kone from last week was dramatic, not quite at his dominant best but much improved nevertheless.

Brendan Galloway struggled, Johnny Russell a constance menace on the left flank and involved in Bradley Johnson’s Derby opener. The loanee did not buckle, to his credit, and rallied late on, but Bryan Oviedo’s return will be welcomed.

Two daunting away Championship fixtures loom on the horizon and Grayson may feel he needs to change the balance of his side slightly to contain Norwich and Sheffield Wednesday’s expensively established attacks.

Sunderland have much to improve, and have not become contenders overnight.

It would be remiss, however, not to note the relief around the club after a performance that showed commitment and the graft that Simon Grayson has promised.

After a long decline, and months of utterly insipid performances on their own turf, the Stadium of Light felt like a home again.

The attendance was down, but the decibels were up.

There were numerous positives on show, Lewis Grabban’s guile – and clinically taken penalty, Cattermole’s leadership, McGeady’s invention. but the atmosphere was biggest.

A point that feels like something much more valuable.