First things first, a return of four points from these two games is, in my opinion, perfectly acceptable given the opposition and the stage of the season we’re at. Nathan Broadhead’s late show on Friday meant we were able to approach the game at Plymouth Argyle knowing a point was a good result without needing to attack and win at all costs.
Taking our eye off the ball for a 20-minute spell either side of half time on Good Friday was nearly very costly, and not at all in keeping with our recent displays under Alex Neil. That the manager seemed more annoyed at Broadhead’s goal being necessary than anything else in the aftermath was yet another example of both his disciplined approach and winner’s mentality. One or both of those have been all too absent from other Sunderland managers in recent years.
Neil’s anger at the sloppiness and his determination not to have a repeat clearly translated to the squad, as we defended resolutely and not without style at times at Plymouth. Argyle were a side who had won seven of their last eight home games without conceding a goal, including the last six in a row. It’s an oft-used cliché that if you can’t win then don’t lose, but it certainly applied to Sunderland at Home Park, and indeed does to all teams pushing for promotion at this stage of the season.
You could see Plymouth were more than happy with a point from virtually the start of the second half, dropping deeper and deeper as we pushed forward. The system we played allowed plenty of chances to be created and, but for some sloppiness in front of goal from Broadhead, Ross Stewart and particularly Jack Clarke, we could have run out winners and not undeserved ones at that.
The poor form of Stewart is a concern not only because he has been outstanding previously, with so much of what’s good about us going forward going through him, but also because there is no realistic replacement for him. Our issues with recruitment in January have been well documented and, as Neil said post-match, Stewart is understandably knackered having played virtually every minute of the season so far.
All is not lost. You don’t score as many as he has already by fluke, and even the best strikers have periods of poor form and no goals. All it will take is one and his limbs will stop aching, the adrenaline will return and his first touch will get back to its deft and effortless best. Do that on Saturday against Cambridge United and he could well begin a purple patch at the perfect time.
As we head into our final three games of the regular season we are well poised to take a play-off position: two points shy of Plymouth and Sheffield Wednesday in fourth and fifth, six behind Rotherham United and MK Dons in second and third. And both of those collapsed on Tuesday against beatable opposition.
Wycombe Wanderers, currently in sixth, play Wednesday on Saturday, one of a few games involving teams in and around us facing each other. As a result, providing we beat Cambridge (no easy feat – they won at Wigan on Saturday) we are poised to move up at least one spot.
Ourselves and the Owls have an extra game on Tuesday, ours at home to Rotherham and theirs away to relegation-fighting Fleetwood Town. Neither is an easy fixture but with each holds great potential for both sides, being extra games that Wycombe, Plymouth, and MK Dons do not have.
My main regret with not beating Plymouth is, if we had, we would be well within reach of an automatic promotion place again. As it is, that’s very much out of our hands, albeit not impossible given the poor form the top three sides are in compared to ourselves.
I understand the frustration of those less happy with our point at Home Park than myself, especially in the context of Tuesday’s results, but given Plymouth’s league position and home record a point is acceptable, and another clean sheet is a clear positive for Neil and the squad to take forward.
The key for me is that a play-off place is firmly in our own hands from here. Yes, we need to win games, but that’s to be expected of a side that wants to get promoted. It may well go down to the wire but we have the second-best home record in the league after Sheffield Wednesday – 47 points from 21 games to their 50 from 22. That would suggest we have what it takes to deliver.
One week and three games left to make sure we’re part of the play-off party. Let’s go and do it.