Phil Smith's verdict: Captain shows why Jack Ross will want to give Championship suitors short shrift

Have your say

It summed up Sunderland’s captain that he was their best player in both stages of a testing game.

In the opening half hour George Honeyman moved the ball quickly, scored a fine goal and broke into the final third at will.

George Honeyman celebrates a goal against Port Vale

George Honeyman celebrates a goal against Port Vale

The game changed when Neil Aspin introduced talented midfielder Manny Oyeleke, Sunderland forced to absorb large amounts of pressure as the hosts fired crosses and set pieces into the box.

Honeyman was excellent again, breaking up the play and ensuring that the Black Cats still had something of a threat on the counter.

His selection as captain has caused debate during the season but this was a performance more than worthy of the armband.

After a short spell out of the side, Honeyman has bounced back in impressive fashion.

With Lee Cattermole expected to be fit next weekend and Max Power available again, Jack Ross has some big selection decisions looming.

Honeyman, however, will take some shifting from the side.

There has been talk of interest from the Championship in recent weeks and though Sunderland are open to the idea of moving on some players in the January window, you can be certain that Ross will be absolutely determined to keep his captain.

As he has done throughout this impressive run of form, at Vale Park Honeyman epitomised a team that has plenty of quality but also the attitude to grind out wins in challenging circumstances.

At one stage it looked like this would be an afternoon for Sunderland to strut and show just far they have travelled in a short space of time.

Though most eyes may have been on Premier League action, the BT cameras were there to capture half an hour of excellent football from the Black Cats, soundtracked by a buoyant travelling support.

Sunderland were expansive, impressive and too good for Port Vale.

Shortly after Lynden Gooch made it 2-0, Chris Maguire advanced on goal and looked certain to tee up Jerome Sinclair for a third.

Had he done so then it felt as if a rout was on the way.

That chance was spurned and what looked like being a procession developed into a frenetic cup tie.

Vale were physical, taking every opportunity to get balls into the box and test Sunderland’s resilience.

Their League One apprenticeship had prepared them well for this kind of cup clash and though they were tested severely, they held on.

Ross would have liked his side to be more ruthless during that dominant spell, but he will be pleased again that they showed their character and determination.

Like they have done in just about every league game this season, they approached it ready to put in the hard yards.

Honeyman embodies that.

After a mixed start to the season, he is showing his quality and the target will now surely be to surpass his goal tally from the Championship campaign.

On Sunday there were times when his speed of thought marked him out, and times when it was his competitive spirit that did the same.

In that sense, he embodies the team he leads. He may still face competition for his place, but he has shown his worth.

Sunderland were not dominant by any means but ultimately they got their rewards for treating the game with respect and naming a strong side.

That winning momentum continues and with every win in this competition, the prospect of a big draw grows.

That really would be a chance to show that this is a club on the march again.