Lynden Gooch’s blockbuster last-minute headed winner to secure a two-goal turnaround against promotion touted Charlton Athletic marked the beginning of a new dawn for Sunderland, and vindication for new owners Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori’s unique brand of transparent fan interaction.
The club’s three masterminds spent their pre-match preparations not in the comfort of the Stadium of Light boardroom, but in the fan zone. The trio took photos with upbeat supporters, even taking time to sample a kick about with a few enthusiastic youngsters – a far cry from their somewhat guarded predecessor, Ellis Short.
The proof, however, was always going to be in the on-field pudding. The opening stanza was all too familiar, one we’ve seen on countless occasions previous – the new season’s excitement dashed by an early Lyle Taylor penalty. With Sky’s cameras and national press in attendance, the narrative was ready to be written: Sunderland shambles once more.
But under new manager Jack Ross, the Black Cats appear to be made of stronger stuff. The steely Scotsman reacted in fine fashion to Charlton’s first-half tactical surprise. The former St Mirren boss hooked the largely ineffective Luke O’Nien, replacing him with on-loan Watford striker Jerome Sinclair at the interval – a move that saw Sunderland shuffle systems from four-at-the-back to three.
In-game adaptability is one of the most useful modern-day managerial qualities. The ability to quickly and decisively act can be the difference between success and failure, and Ross’ willingness to mix things up was refreshing given the tactical stubbornness of previous managers David Moyes, Simon Grayson and Chris Coleman.
And the change did indeed pay dividends. Josh Maja, roared on by a passionate crowd of 31,079 who stayed with the team despite the early setback, equalised midway through the second-half.
Is there a better feeling in football than a last-minute winner?
American-born playmaker Gooch, having spent most of his life at the club, nabbed a headed winner at the death following a sublime cross from substitute Bryan Oviedo, who is surely too good not to start regularly should the Costa Rican remain on Wearside past the closure of the transfer window this week.
Up in the concourse, Sartori couldn’t contain his excitement. The Uruguayan businessman beamed from ear to ear, fist pumping, gesticulating – his delight so great, he hugged the nearest heavy-coat cladded and considerably surprised steward. A billionaire completely swept up amidst a gargantuan working class Roker roar.
The emotion continued in the tunnel post-match. Louise Wanless, head of media and communications at the club, admitted to shedding a tear at the full-time whistle and looked visibly moved at the renewed joy and excitement infecting everybody. Meanwhile, Donald and Methven eagarly went about congratulating their staff whilst trying not to make too much enthuastic noise as journalists conducted their reporting duties.
Who knows where Sunderland will end-up this season. On this showing, and with a few additions, promotion is a real probability. However, football, especially on Wearside, is never that simple.
But for now, at least, Sunderland have the feelgood factor back.