Phil Smith's Sunderland verdict: Inside one of the most challenging afternoons for Tony Mowbray's side yet and what we learned
Michut had told his head coach that this wasn’t much like what he was used to in Ligue 1.
This, Mowbray said, was like the football he’d played in.
He’s always telling his players to get on google and watch some clips of his goals, particularly a header at Wembley in his final-ever game, but he’s aware that they probably don’t. Now they might know a little bit more about the player their boss was.
Mowbray, you sensed, was pleased that his team had been presented with a very different challenge. And even more pleased, it was clear, that they’d found a way to dig something out of it.
This was a performance a long, long way off Sunderland’s best this season and yet when then the players headed over to applaud the travelling support the response was emphatic.
Mowbray had been warning his players during the week that there was going to be something a little different about this fixture.
There was even a little bit of an extra edge to this particular trip to Millwall, given that it was a sell-out at The Den - the biggest attendance at the ground since 1995.
Their players responded to that at times deafening noise, more than matched in another packed away end, with an energy that Sunderland struggled to withstand.
Millwall are unapologetic in playing forward quickly and in using every set piece to bombard the opposition box, but it would be reductive and do them a disservice to say that their success in recent times and particularly on home turf is solely down to that. Watching them for large parts of this game you begin to understand that it’s out of possession where they do so much of their damage. The work-rate is outstanding and there is an organisation that makes it very difficult to play through them. The end result is you struggle to keep the ball near their goal and so begins the wave of pressure and of set plays.
They also, it should be said, were very successful at shutting down dangerous breaks at source with the odd and probably not particularly accidental mistimed challenge.
Aside from one or two spells early in both halves, Sunderland just never managed to find any fluency and that one or two of their biggest threats weren’t quite at their most incisive just added to the feel that this was a game to survive. Mowbray’s respect for the opposition and how they execute their plan explained why he wasn’t overly critical of his team afterwards for looking off their usual pace in moving the ball.
There were impressive Millwall performers all over the pitch but none more so than George Honeyman, who has clearly found a very suitable home for his all-action style. And it rather sums up Gary Rowett’s team that even their talented, technical Dutch number ten can also bounce opposition players all over the pitch when he needs to. They’re play-off contenders, make no mistake.
In the end, Sunderland just about found a way. There was a delicious irony in that in a season when a complete lack of end product from set pieces has been regularly discussed, they went and pulled it out the bag at the very last place you’d expect.
Perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that Alex Pritchard found a way to make an impact, though. Millwall fans had not forgotten that he’d celebrated his goal against them earlier this season by revealing his love for West Ham United, and they made him aware of it from the moment he arrived.
Even before he swung that excellent ball right into the heart of the Millwall box, he’d brought a composure and simplicity to Sunderland’s game that was finally allowing them to get up towards their fans behind the opposition goal. It was a reminder in a week dominated by striker discussion that being a focal point doesn’t always mean winning headers - though for sure there were times in the game when it would have been nice to have the option.
The heading in the end was left to Dennis Cirkin, who once again showed his bravery to land the equaliser.
Though Cirkin now faces at least a week out as he goes through the concussions protocols, they’re big players and big presences for Mowbray to have back.
Take the positives, Mowbray told his players in the dressing room afterwards.
And even if it was a game that was endured rather than enjoyed for the most part, there really were plenty. Trai Hume is not just settled at right back but thriving, crunching into challenges at any available opportunities. Dan Ballard and Danny Batth were again formidable, the former emerging as a serious prospect. It’s normal for a defender to be comfortable on the ball or difficult to fight against off it, it’s not so normal for one so young to be both.
Sunderland had impressed with their fluent, brave football at Fulham a week previous but here they had to show something completely different.
Was it always convincing? Most certainly not. But thay response from the away end told you they had seen heart and spirit.
There’ll be other days to show the rest.
“We won’t play many more games like this one,” as Mowbray said. A point hard earned, to put it mildly. And a point in the right direction, undoubtedly.