Loading...

Phil Smith's verdict: Inside an important and uplifting night for Sunderland and for Lee Johnson

Lee Johnson took the applause from all sides of the ground and returned it in kind.

By Phil Smith
Wednesday, 8th December 2021, 12:56 pm
Updated Wednesday, 8th December 2021, 12:58 pm

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

Through the closing stages his name had been sung in the Roker End, the approval spreading throughout the Stadium of Light as they basked in the glow of an emphatic win.

Quite rightly, no one will be going overboard in response to this five-goal show.

Morecambe proved to be limited and obliging opposition, their defensive frailties leaving manager Stephen Robinson to conceded he was 'humiliated and embarrassed' after the game

Alex Pritchard celebrates Sunderland's third goal at the Stadium of Light

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

Johnson will know, just as his squad and the club's supporters will know, that maintaining this momentum against sterner opposition in Plymouth Argyle on Saturday is crucial.

This was an important night all the same, not just because of the result but also because of the performance.

Perfect? Far from it. But Sunderland were aggressive, creative, and a threat everytime they broke forward.

This was the Sunderland that had Wearside feeling optimistic in the early stages of the season; this was the Sunderland that Lee Johnson has talked of building.

They did cede chances throughout, but that was a consequence of their willingness to press from the front and take risks in possession.

It meant that their defence was sometimes left a little exposed to a turnover in possession or a long ball down the field, but the upside was a raft of openings throughout. Ultimately, the risk-reward balance always looked in Sunderland's favour.

In the build up to Sunderland's win over Cambridge United, Johnson had spoken at length when questioned on his position at the club, and whether he felt secure.

The response from the head coach had been a fair one. Get two sets of lawyers in and ask them to present the opposing view of the season, and both could probably make a convincing case.

At that point the Black Cats were in middling form, and the wounds from failing to beat ten-man Shrewsbury were still raw.

Much of the football in the preceding weeks had been middling, and there had been some truly brutal defeats for supporters to witness.

The contrast was some outstanding early-season performances, the progression of some talented young players and a mightily impressive cup run.

That win at Cambridge had settled some nerves, and the draw against Oxford United would have done little to change your view on where this team stood.

They were underwhelming at the first half (though in mitigation, a strong opponent capitalised on the major injury issues Sunderland currently face), and excellent through much of the second.

It left the Black Cats unbeaten in four, and still very much in the race for the top two.

Yet Johnson knew that delivering a performance, as well as a result, was important here.

He had seen much to build on against Oxford, and in the run up here had focused on trying to share that message with his players.

He revealed afterwards that he had messaged Alex Pritchard, to stress how much he had enjoyed his performance on Saturday.

To Ross Stewart there was a video compilation of his last 20 goals for motivation, and for Lynden Gooch there had been support after a difficult afternoon against Oxford.

On that front there was also a slight but significant tactical adjustment, a switch of flanks that directly led to those crucial first two goals.

The lack of full backs means this is a side that will always be a touch vulnerable, but there is clearly a confidence returning and encouraging signs in terms of the players available.

Pritchard is excelling, beginning to look like a player whose ability is above third-tier level.

Stewart and Nathan Broadhead are a threatening partnership, while Carl Winchester and Dan Neil look an excellent pairing.

The glow of the win had allowed Johnson to address his post-match altercation with an irate supporter on Saturday with a wry smile and an honest regret.

The head coach emphatically denied swearing, but admitted that he should not have offered any reaction.

If he were to bump into his good friend along the way, he said with a grin, he would share a drink and a chat about all things Sunderland.

He is, at the end of the day, fighting for the same cause.

And that really was the key point Johnson was making. He would point out that he inherited a club in a mess last year, requiring major improvements in all areas.

He is also in the first stages of a major squad overhaul, and has been facing a ruinous injury list.

He understands, though, the baggage of three years of unprecedented failure at this level, and that the time for delivering promotion is now.

He knows, as he has regularly said, that supporters are simply desperate to get a team that they can trust.

Even if he believes they can get there, it hasn't quite happened yet.

The scenes at the end here underlined that there is perhaps a mutual understanding and appreciation here, even if Sunderland's unique status at this level makes turbulence inevitable.

Johnson will know he still has work to do in convincing all that the trajectory of this side is still automatic promotion at the end of this season, but this performance has lifted the mood considerably.

This was a night that showcased a lot of the positive work that has happened since the arrival of Johnson, Kristjaan Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus a year ago. which is why the recent discussion around the club's opaque ownership structured matters.

It is clear there is potential here, an idea worth supporting and the prospect of long-term success.

And that's exactly the point. The question was whether Louis-Dreyfus and his executive team have the scope to build on that platform, not just in the January window, for example, but across all areas of the club.This was a night that showcased what is possible, and a welcome one at that.

A message from the Football Clubs Editor

Our aim is to provide you with the best, most up-to-date and most informative Sunderland AFC coverage 365 days a year.

This depth of coverage costs, so to help us maintain the high-quality reporting that you are used to, please consider taking out a subscription to our new sports-only package here.

Your support is much appreciated. Richard Mennear, Football Clubs Editor