Stewart Donald's return and the battle Sunderland won: The moments you may have missed from Northampton draw
We take a look at some of the moments you might have missed from the League One stalemate – from the return of Stewart Donald and the one big shining light...
THE FAMILIAR FACES IN THE CROWD
Sunderland’s directors were out in force for the draw, with Stewart Donald making his first appearance at a game since the win over Oxford United in September.
Donald, who was joined at the game by his family, was accompanied by minority shareholder Charlie Methven – while non-executive director David Jones was also in attendance.
Indeed, Jones was seen having a lengthy pre-match discussion with head coach Johnson before perching alongside chief executive Jim Rodwell and sporting director Kristjaan Speakman to watch the game.
And it wasn’t just Sunderland who were well represented at the game.
With the League One fixture list somewhat decimated, a number of other clubs took the chance to watch the Black Cats 0 with Peterborough United’s Barry Fry one of the more notable attendees.
CALLS FOR CONSISTENCY
It may be just a tad early to be compiling your 2021 Christmas card lists, but don’t expect referee Leigh Doughty to feature on Lee Johnson’s come the next festive period.
Particularly in the first half, Johnson was far from pleased with a number of decisions made by the man in the middle.
A number of soft fouls were given that broke up any kind of momentum gained by the visitors, which played perfectly into Northampton’s game plan.
The key moment that had Johnson – and a large number of his players – up in arms was the decision not to penalise a Northampton man for blocking Lee Burge’s kick, only moments after Charlie Wyke had been booked for an identical act.
Both Johnson and Aiden McGeady could be heard calling for consistency from the officials after that decision.
But credit where it is due, Doughty did get one key decision right when he turned down Northampton’s first-half penalty appeals and instead opted to book Ryan Watson for diving.
His performance, though, was still mixed to say the least – and it perhaps spoke volumes that both Johnson and opposite manager Keith Curle were waiting to collar the official when he left the pitch at full-time.
TECHNOLOGY MAKING AN IMPACT
Johnson is known to be a key advocate of technology in coaching and, having seen glimpses of that in his opening few games in charge, we saw further steps taken at Northampton to modernise the way Sunderland do things.
While Johnson and new assistant head coach Jamie McAllister – backed-up by Lee Butler – were barking out the instructions from the sidelines, first-team coach Andrew Taylor was tasked with inputting data into an iPad situated in the dugout.
Such practices are becoming more common in the game, as they give players and coaches immediate access to data which can be used to informed half-time messages, substitutions and tactical changes.
It’s these kind of methods that can provide the marginal gains needed to achieve promotion – and here’s hoping that’s the case with Sunderland.
NORTHAMPTON’S CLEAR GAME PLAN
The limited number of people in attendance at Northampton will have undoubtedly left the ground with Keith Curle’s shouts of ‘SHAPE!’ ringing in their ears.
As we have seen with most clubs that come up against Sunderland this season, the Cobblers had a clear game plan and set out to frustrate the Black Cats.
Johnson alluded to this in his post-match interview, pointing at the fact Northampton had limited ball boys and that the ball spent a great deal of time out of play.
And while Northampton’s game plan may not be one for the football purists, it was clear and effective. They nullified Sunderland and limited them to half-chances, while looking to exploit set pieces in the final third.
It’s these kind of games that were the Wearsiders’ downfall during their early time in the third tier. A poor pitch, a direct team and difficult conditions can prove a recipe for disaster for many a promotion hopeful.
Sunderland, though, are now able to win these kind of battles. They can defend resolutely against these direct teams and are far less vulnerable at set-pieces than they have been in the past.
But it’s at the other end where concerns lie.
The Black Cats once again struggled to break down an organised and well-drilled side, and they must find a way to do that in the coming weeks – as this won’t be the last time such an approach is employed against Sunderland this term.
THE SHINING LIGHT
While it was an afternoon of frustration for the Black Cats on the whole, they can take encouragement from one performance – that of Dion Sanderson.
The Wolves loanee, playing in a somewhat unfamiliar role on the left-hand side of the back four, put in an accomplished display at the back and dealt well with the effective Sam Hoskins.
The qualities he can bring to this side were highlighted in one key moment in the first half – as his athleticism allowed him to get to the touchline ahead of the Northampton man, with his header and subsequent clearance not only keeping the ball in play, but setting Sunderland off on a counter-attack.
Sanderson was impressive going forward too, and it would be no surprise to see him get an extended run in the side now.