Phil Smith's verdict: How Sunderland's crucial win was worrying, uplifting and encouraging all in one

Alex Neil knew that when it came down to it, the result was by some distance the most important thing.

By Phil Smith
Wednesday, 9th March 2022, 11:34 am

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Everyone knew coming into this game that Sunderland could not afford a repeat of Saturday, could not afford to end the night patting themselves on the back for a good performance but one that didn't yield three points.

This play-off battle is too competitive for that, the margins too fine.

Wins for Plymouth Argyle, Portsmouth, Ipswich Town and MK Dons in the night's other fixtures went on to underline it.

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All the same, Neil was in absolutely no mood to pretend that this had been a particularly positive night for himself or his team.

His press conference afterwards was sharp and to the point, relatively brief but significant in its total candour.

At The Valley three days previous he had been able to set his frustration with the final result against the fact that he could genuinely look you in the eye and say he had total confidence in his group.

For the second game in a row, they had played with a good balance, competed tenaciously and handled the pressure.

Jack Clarke scores Sunderland's third goal

The biggest concern for any manager at a new club is that nagging sense of not knowing what performance your team was going to produce.

After a turbulent beginning, the Sunderland head coach was beginning to slowly feel he was getting beyond that point.

45 utterly dismal minutes here left Neil, in his own words, feeling like he was leaving the Stadium of Light to go back to the drawing board.

Though the absence of Nathan Broadhead and Alex Pritchard through injury was undoubtedly a blow, it was arguably the most attacking line up Neil had fielded since his arrival and the hope was that back on home turf, this side could build some momentum and go through another gear.

Instead, they produced the kind of insipid performance that saw those once very realistic hopes of a top-two finish evaporate in the space of a fractious fortnight.

Bailey Wright's error in possession gifted Fleetwood Town their lead but it was merely one of a number of unforced errors in an utterly dismal opening half hour.

The visitors set up well, with a good shape and with genuine pace on the counter, but they could scarcely believe their luck as the hosts played into their hands time and time again.

The concentration was non-existent, so too the movement off the ball. There was the occasional moment where Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts beat their marker, but that only served to underline the paucity of quality more generally.

The reaction inside the Stadium of Light was one of increasing exasperation and frustration and in truth, the atmosphere could have been far worse. It was really that poor.

So poor, that not even the three goals that followed in the second half could leave Neil leaving satisfied with his work.

The head coach like his predecessor is a big believer that though you may get away with it once or twice, or indeed suffer bad luck once or twice, your performances will over time dictate your results.

He knows that Sunderland will not get away with doing this again, not when their hopes of staying in those play-off hopes are hanging by such a slender thread.

Though ecstatic with the end result, and particularly the welcome sight of a fit Luke O'Nien bursting into the box to score a crucial goal, supporters too will have left with the nagging fear that another 45 like that first half and Sunderland will be staring down the barrel of a fifth season in League One.

And yet.

Sunderland did get over the line, and they did so mainly because the changes were early and they were aggressive.

Neil wasn't prepared to accept too much praise for them, noting that they left his team very vulnerable to the counter and that on another day, they may have backfired.

They left numerous players in unfamiliar positions, but most crucially they got creative players in better areas and they lifted the tempo of the home team's play. High risk, high reward.

This could have been a night as acrimonious as any in recent times, but the end result was supporters in the main left encouraged that major problems had been identified and rectified, at least to an extent (Neil was certainly not going to pretend the second half was flawless, which it most clearly was not).

And most significantly of all, that there was no attempt to pretend that this was anything other than a good result but one that came with a poor performance.

That this was not a promotion performance in any way was obvious and it gave supporters hope to hear Neil express that so clearly and so bluntly.

There are reservations over the football at this early stage of Neil's tenure when the performances have understandably been so inconsistent as he tries to get his message across, but the way he has carried himself and addressed the job he has taken on has created a growing sense that this could be a fine fit with the fanbase.

He has also, thus far at least, made good on his promise to try and always go for the win in the latter stages of games.

This was a big step backwards, and then a gentle one forwards. For now, that was enough.

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