Phil Smith's verdict: Inside Sunderland's latest special cup night - and the one major concern

In the away end, that heady mix of growing bemusement and even greater delirium.

Wednesday, 27th October 2021, 12:35 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th October 2021, 1:54 pm

QPR are known to be one of the Championship's most technically gifted sides and Mark Warburton has named pretty much his strongest side here.

Penalties should suit them, and did in the previous round, when they successfully put nine past Everton with ease.

But from the moment Lee Burge flies to his left to claw away Charlie Austin's effort, leaving the home stands in disbelief, the Sunderland fans can sense something in the air.

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The red-and-white penalties are nerveless and as both Ilias Chair and Yoann Barbet fire high into the stands, the decibel levels grow once more.

These are so often the nights that the Mackem diaspora makes itself felt.

A midweek trip, a rainy night, an occasion when you could make so many excuses not to bother.

This year is all about the league, after all, and ending four years of purgatory.

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Not a bit of it. Almost 3,000 fans are electric from minute one, and bask in the moment as Le Johnson serenades them at the end.

When you're in the nascent stages of a long-term project, trying to build not just a unity but a belief, you can't put a price on these moments.

Hurdles overcome, levels stepped up.

Blessed with fortune? Just a bit.

Less than ten minutes from the end Sunderland were granted one of the all-time bizarre reprieves. A poacher's goal from Austin, his movement perfectly timed as the pressure finally told on the Black Cats.

The raucous celebrations in the home end were heading towards the second minute when from nowhere, the offside flag was raised.

One of those calls that leaves you scratching your head on the fifth replay, trying to work out what you've missed.

Nothing, seemed increasingly to be the answer.

One of the QPR players involved in the initial build up of the move did run back from an offside position to join the attack, but the delay between him taking possession and the eventual flag suggested he was not the player being penalised.

Warburton was certainly left with the impression, both from the fourth official at the time and afterwards, that it was indeed Austin who had been flagged.

On this, though, the last word seems fairly left with Johnson: "After the Charlton game, I'll happily take any dodgy decision going."

Quite.

Besides, to reduce this penalty shootout win to a slice of luck would be unfair and though Warburton not unreasonably raged at the call afterwards, he was magnanimous enough to admit his side had probably not done enough over 90 minutes.

Johnson had made seven changes but it was still a strong side and they started superbly.

The lift in intensity from the opening minute was obvious, both in the speed of passing and the pressing.

Sunderland needed to be quicker and more precise, and to begin with they managed it. Johnson, too, had wisely deployed Corry Evans as a more traditional defensive midfielder, the move to a more orthodox 4-3-3 giving the Black Cats that extra line of defence and most importantly, an extra second or two to pick the pass.

The early chances went to the visitors.

It would not always be so convincing, in truth.

Johnson's half-time team talk was to try and instil some confidence into his side, to point out that the long-term aim for these players is to be at this level twice a week, so go out and show you can do it in the second half.

That this was his message reflected a challenging spell before the break.

The pressing of the home side finally looked to have drained Sunderland, who began to gift the ball away in dangerous areas.

It was to their credit that the errors came from trying to play through the lines even under pressure, and not resorting solely to firing it long. But QPR knew that they could and should have killed it off in this period.

Poor finishing was part of the story, but so was some strong goalkeeping from Burge.

This was one of his best nights in a Sunderland shirt. Not just in the headline-grabbing saves, from the penalty spot or otherwise, but in the calm distribution and way he punched set pieces clear.

Johnson had told him ten days ago that he would definitely start in this fixture, hoping that it would give him a focus and incentive to help ease the disappointment of losing his place in the league.

The goalkeeper has now given himself a high-profile quarter final to aim for, and will know he has strongly underlined his credentials should injury or poor form hit Thorben Hoffmann, unlikely as that seems right now.

It should be noted, too, that QPR themselves had their goalkeeper to thank along the way.

There was nothing between the two sides across the second half, QPR limited to that offside goal and one other volley from Austin in terms of meaningful efforts.

Sunderland had regained their composure and always looked a threat, particularly when Johnson made a positive gamble and introduced both of his Aiden’s from the bench.

Both went close to scoring at the end of two fine counter-attacks, with Seny Dieng making one particularly impressive stop from McGeady with just seconds left on the clock.

Right across the pitch, players stepped into the side and did well. That was particularly true in defence, where both Frederik Alves and Bailey Wright looked comfortable at the level.

For Johnson, the positives were numerous.

For one, his side kept a clean sheet against a team that have scored in every one of their Championship games so far this season.

For another, it continued their fine record of winning every single game that has followed a negative result during the current campaign.

Above all else, he knows the long-term benefit to be drawn right across the club from stepping up a level in quality and handling it well enough.

Yet even as he basked in the glow of the win, there was a but.

It was night to look at negatives, he said. But there can be disguising the concern that this cup run is beginning to put strain on the squad.

There were another three or four minor injuries picked up over the course of this game, while Denver Hume left the ground with his ankle in a protective boot.

Sunderland face a major test of their promotion credentials away at Rotherham United this weekend and the physical output demanded this game is far from ideal preparation, even if those changes should mean rotation is a viable possibility. These cup memories will be scant consolation if league results are consistently impacted.

Rotherham will enjoy extra preparation and recovery days this week and they won’t be the last over the course of the season.

So far, Johnson has been able to field young sides in the Papa John’s Trophy with success and this latest win might mean the same happens in the FA Cup, at least to an extent.

It is arguably his toughest challenge over the weeks and months ahead.

Worth it?

On balance, without a doubt.

Memories for 3,000 that only cup nights under the lights can deliver, and the tantalising prospect of a high-profile game to really signal Sunderland are on the road back.

Another night when a new philosophy and a young group of players were put under real scrutiny, and proved more than a match.

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