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The unsung hero in Sunderland's defence who embodies the progress made under Alex Neil

On debut against Portsmouth, Danny Batth looked instantly like being an important part of Sunderland's puzzle.

By Phil Smith
Saturday, 7th May 2022, 2:00 pm

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The 31-year-old brought experience, composure and most importantly of all, aerial dominance. It was immediately obvious why Lee Johnson had pushed hard to bring the Stoke City defender to the club. It was far from a classic game, but it was most definitely a very welcome clean sheet.

From there, though, things got tougher both for Batth and his new club.

He had actually been one of the better performers in the dismal implosion against Bolton Wanderers a week later, but his afternoon would be defined by the bizarre own goal that stretched the scoreline to five.

Sunderland defender Danny Batth

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A troublesome ankle injury followed, a bitter twist given that Johnson had not unreasonably pointed to his previously outstanding availability record as a key reason for signing him.

After another clean sheet and another imposing performance on Friday night, that challenging start looks to be firmly behind him.

Alex Neil has created a defensive structure that does not expose what might be a lack of pace between Batth and Bailey Wright, and they have been able to show their qualities as a result.

Afterwards, Neil spoke glowingly of his players, how they have adapted to his methods and bought in to his promotion push.

Batth, he said, wad the absolute prime example of what he was talking about.

“Dan is one of the ones I talk about that have been selfless," Neil said.

"Because if you look at the last 16 games I’ve taken, there are games where I’ve dipped Dan out, played him against Gillingham and then dipped him out of the team.

“For somebody who has played as many games as Dan has at a high level and done what he has done, not one problem [about being left out].

“Understood, explained to him why I did it and why we are doing it in the next game and explained how he's going to be important in future games.

"He’s kept his head down and worked his socks off. Absolutely brilliant, fantastic attitude and fantastic professional."

Monday night will be his toughest test yet.

Sheffield Wednesday's home record is outstanding and in front of a sell-out crowd the pressure will be intense. In the final stages of the game on Friday there was perhaps a taste of what is to come, the visitors firing crosses into the box and sternly testing Sunderland’s defensive resilience.

They were able to stand up to the challenge and if Sunderland are to make it to Wembley, they will have to do so again.

The Owls had tried to sign Batth themselves in January, equally concerned about some of their defensive frailties that had been exposed at the Stadium of Light weeks earlier.

Both sides have improved drastically since then, January arrivals Jordan Storey and Harlee Dean impressing for Darren Moore's side. In the end there was little between the two sides on Friday and it will no doubt be the same on Monday night.

You can be fairly sure the increasingly impressive Batth will be at the heart of it.