The evolution of Jack Ross' Sunderland explored from Charlton drama to the League One play-off final

For even the most measured of managers, Lynden Gooch’s winner against Charlton Athletic required a wild celebration.

By Phil Smith
Monday, 20 May, 2019, 18:31
Lynden Gooch celebrates his goal against Charlton on the opening day of the season

After a tumultuous, challenging summer, a threadbare Black Cats squad came through a difficult early spell to seal three vital points for Jack Ross.

His side has changed immeasurably over the following months, with only a handful of starters that day likely to be given the nod on Sunday.

Here, we chart the journey of his squad through an exhausting but often exhilarating season….

DEFENCE: McLaughlin, Love, Ozturk, Loovens, Matthews

Jon McLaughlin has been ever-present in the League this season but Sunderland’s defence has changed regularly due to injuries, form and transfer additions.

The Black Cats had been rocked in the week running up the Charlton game when Tom Flanagan, who had been a fixture through pre-season, suffered an injury that he initially feared would keep him out for the rest of 2018.

Jack Baldwin sat the game out as he adjusted to the step up, leaving Alim Ozturk and Glenn Loovens to hold the fort.

They struggled in the early stages of the game, forcing Jack Ross to move Adam Matthews inside and play the second half with a back three.

Baldwin and Flanagan would go on to play the majority of Sunderland’s league games, interrupted on occasions by January signing Jimmy Dunne.

Loovens has not featured since being sent off at Fratton Park just before Christmas, while Donald Love suffered an injury early on the opening day. He returned to action soon after but saw his season end in September when he suffered a serious injury.

Matthews has endured a frustrating season, showing excellent form in patches but disrupted by niggling injuries.

His contract is up this summer and given his wage, there are significant doubts over his future.

That left-back berth has been shared by Reece James, Bryan Oviedo and Denver Hume, all of whom have looked strong on occasions but unable to hold down their place for a prolonged period.

James and Hume have had injury issues, while Oviedo missed a sustained spell after a deadline day move to West Brom fell through.

He will surely start on Sunday, though, after excellent semi-final performances, and another cross of the quality that helped Lynden Gooch seal victory over Charlton that day will cement a place in folklore.

So too will Luke O’Nien, who took advantage of Matthews’ injury to nail down an unfamiliar right-back role.

And so too, perhaps most remarkably at all, will Alim Ozturk.

His revival has been superb since the nadir of Sunderland’s defensive issues this season, the 5-4 defeat to Coventry City.

This area more than any other has seen regular overhaul, but in the final weeks Ross has managed to establish some consistent partnerships.

Most importantly, they are far less dependent on McLaughlin than they were in those early months.

As the two previous encounters with Charlton have demonstrated, coming out on top against Lyle Taylor will be one of their biggest tests yet.

MIDFIELD: Mumba, O’Nien, Honeyman, Gooch, Maguire

Another area where Sunderland were rocked pre-match, when Dylan McGeouch, quite outstanding in pre-season, suffered an injury at Middlesbrough just a week before the regular season began.

He arguably never had the chance to get back to his best level after that, outstanding in games away at Accrington Stanley and Rochdale, but generally forced to settle for a place on the bench at best.

Ross’ youthful midfield, which would have included Ethan Robson had he not also been injured, reflected a desire to indicate a fresh start at the Stadium of Light.

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Lee Cattermole returned a week later and quickly underlined his worth to the club as the midfield slowly began to take on a far more experienced look.

Mumba began to drift from the first team picture as Max Power arrived, followed by Grant Leadbitter in January.

The value of that experience was on show in the semi finals against Portsmouth, and Ross will hope it is shown again in the next clash with Charlton.

In the long-term, how and indeed if he manages the transition to the next generation of academy talent will be fascinating.

Further forward Sunderland’s profile has also changed, mainly because of the spectacular contribution made by Aiden McGeady.

The Irish winger missed all of pre-season but from his return in September proved to be a leader on and off the pitch.

That became all the more important as Gooch, excellent as an ultra-attacking wing-back in the early stages of the campaign, struggled for form.

Maguire was virtually ever-present in the opening months but injuries took their toll, and in recent weeks he has been used primarily as an impact player.

STRIKER: Maja

Josh Maja marked the start of his life-changing season with the kind of exceptional finish that would go on to define the first half of the season.

A clever turn on the edge of the area, and a precise finish that left the goalkeeper with no chance.

A goal almost from nothing, and a lifeline for the Black Cats.

To what extent the Black Cats have recovered from his departure is debatable.

An ankle injury had a major effect on Will Grigg, while Charlie Wyke has only recently been able to get up to match fitness after injury issues.

Wyke looks likely to lead the line on Sunday but Grigg could yet be crucial coming off the bench.

The Bench

The game was turned by Ross’ half-time substitution, Jerome Sinclair entering the fray to provide Maja with welcome support.

An injury just minutes from the end denied him a chance to go and stake a claim for regular football, the Watford loanee eventually moving on to Oxford United in January.

The threadbare nature of Ross’ squad at that stage was highlighted by this young bench, featuring both Elliot Embleton and Luke Molyneux, who would go on to secure loan moves further down the footballing pyramid.

And Charlton…..

Sunderland’s own journey is mirrored by Charlton, who started the game with just five substitutions after another turbulent summer.

Only two of those could be considered senior players, and one of those subsequently left the club on loan.

Short-term additions have helped Bowyer sustain a play-off challenge, building around impressive talents in the likes of Lyle Taylor, Joe Aribo and Patrick Bauer.

Krystian Bielik and Josh Cullen, from Arsenal and West Ham respectively, have been particularly impressive in the midfield diamond and been a vital part of the club’s success this year.