Three tough games, four hard-earned points
The visit of Luton was the third in a nasty-looking trio of games into which we headed on the back of a shellacking by Stoke, an encounter that would certainly have left some scars on the players and fans alike.
However, this team has an impressive amount of resilience and after a superb victory at Carrow Road and a narrow defeat to Sheffield United on Wednesday evening, we needed the lads to dig deep and ensure that we headed into the international break on a positive note.
It wasn’t a vintage performance from Sunderland and Amad’s penalty was borderline to say the least, but we certainly showed that there’s life left in our season and that we’re not going to drift lazily through the remaining matches.
The Hatters’ away form is formidable and after conceding a sloppy opening goal, we didn’t panic and duly edged our way back into the game.
We did look slightly heavy-legged at times, but the players kept going right until the end, which is exactly what we want to see as fans. The schedule in recent weeks has been fairly brutal, but these lads are gaining vital experience of this league and that’ll be significant next season.
A return of four points from three games that we could’ve lost comprehensively had the cards fallen differently is more than acceptable. It means we can look forward to the trip to Burnley with even less pressure, and excitement at the chance to test ourselves against the champions-in-waiting.
Time to move on from Joe Gelhardt as a starter
There’s just no way of sugar coating this: it simply isn’t working for Gelhardt at Sunderland, and I’m genuinely curious as to why he was so heavily hyped before he joined us in January.
If there’s an exciting and dynamic centre forward there, as Leeds United fans claimed, we’re seeing no evidence of it at this point.
Nothing fell for him on Saturday and despite no lack of work rate and determination, he looks further away from hitting the goal trail than ever.
OK, he was probably signed with a view to playing off either Ellis Simms or Ross Stewart and he’s ploughing something of a lone furrow up top, but is it asking too much to expect a little more in the way of goal threat from him?
The introduction of Jewison Bennette in the second half brought Gelhardt’s struggles into even sharper focus. The Costa Rican was a real livewire, with his pace, dribbling and movement causing the visiting defence plenty of problems.
Frankly, I’d like to see Bennette start next time out against Burnley, as well as the games after that.
Gelhardt is offering nothing and it can’t be doing his confidence any good, either. He won’t be with us for very much longer, and unless there’s a dramatic turnaround in form, this is a transfer that’ll be marked down as sadly unsuccessful.
Luke O’Nien = playmaker extraordinaire?
OK, maybe that was a little bit over the top, but O’Nien’s passing from left back on Saturday was absolutely sublime at times, and it blew another hole in the rapidly fading idea that he’s merely a limited, rough & tumble clogger.
He sprayed the ball all over the park with supreme confidence, always looking for space and chances to set his teammates free, and he did so without really looking like he was trying too hard.
We know that O’Nien’s drive, positive attitude and will to win are integral to the way we play, but with the ball at his feet, he’s far better than he’s often given credit for.
Against Norwich, we saw the no-nonsense qualities of O’Nien’s game, but here we saw a much more dynamic and creative side. His footballing ability may sometimes be overlooked, but this was another great example of the value he adds to our team.
A Sunderland breakthrough for Pierre Ekwah?
The West Ham academy graduate entered the fray as we were chasing the game and after a nervy cameo against Norwich last Sunday, it felt like he would be tested severely against the well-organised and streetwise visitors.
However, this was a really encouraging contribution from Ekwah, who kept it simple, made some firm tackles, chased hard out of possession, and broke up the play effectively. He also looked composed and confident, and that can only be a good thing for the games to come.
He’s clearly a physically imposing player with plenty of potential, but he’s also extremely short of game time, and I really think we’ll start to see the best of during the 2023/2024 season.
If he can use the remaining games as a chance to show what he can do, it gives Tony Mowbray another positive dilemma as he begins to plan ahead and think about who his frontline midfielders might be for next season.