As we departed the pub to head towards the ground walking along the roadwork-laden one-way shambles that we call Wigan town centre, one of the lads in the group sheepishly disclosed that he’d put £100 on Wigan to win.
My initial reaction was that this lad must have too much money, bur my next thought was that it would be Classic Sunderland for the team to ruin his bet today! A swift pint in the ground and a discussion at the surprise at the long awaited inclusion of Arbenit Xhemajli ensued, as well as the absence of fellow centre halves Danny Batth and Callum Doyle. We now know that Batth’s had further swelling from an ankle injury in training, and Doyle has finally received a much-needed bit of annual leave to recharge his young batteries (and maybe grow his radge moustache a bit more).
Alex Neil had once again changed shape and personnel as he continues to work out his best XI, with the clear tactic to nullify the Latics threat over the top and wide. Setting up with a 4-2-3-1 this would help keep the game narrow and leave height at the back to more than cope with the home team’s physical threat from Josh Magennis and Will Keane. Surprisingly Stephen Humphreys was reduced to the bench along with the experienced Graeme Shinnie.
It was Bailey Wright that got the lads going in only the second minute of the match, as he took advantage of the generous lack of marking by the home side at the back post to nod in a free kick from Alex Pritchard. As expected, after the euphoria, large sections of the away end focused on making sure James McClean and Max Power knew they were not appreciated in opposition colours. I think it’s fair to say the McClean vitriol wasn’t done in the most tasteful way.
The home side then enjoyed a bit of possession pressing high in what was a busy start to the game that saw Jay Matete in the book on eight minutes for a foul on Tom Naylor. The resulting free kick from Max lacked Power and was safely gathered by Anthony Patterson.
As the half moved on the lads grew into the game with a solid shape given by the back four and midfield watchmen Matete and skipper Corry Evans. With defenders being allowed to just defend it paid dividends for 19-year-old Dennis Cirkin who grew in confidence as the half wore on, and that was emphasised by consecutive tackles taking both player and ball in front of the dug out. Pritchard, Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch an attacking three behind Ross Stewart, did all the running and started to cause problems for the Wigan defence, particularly Pritchard who loves to lead the press and not give the opposition any time on the ball.
On 25 minutes there was a slight concern as Callum Lang ghosted past Xhemajli causing a mix up with the Swiss international and goalkeeper Patterson, but luckily Arby managed to almost over casually sweep it up and get it away from danger. The lads then had a good spell with some useful pressure leading to consecutive corners, before the critical moment of the half on 37 minutes seeing the visitors awarded a penalty.
Curtis Tilt fouled Ross Stewart who managed to get to the ball before the big centre half, and referee Sam Purkiss showed no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Power attempted some tried and tested League One Shithousery as he proceeded to question where the ball should be best placed on the penalty spot. His antics failed to work as he received a booking for his blatant theatre, and the big Scotsman Stewart rattled home number 21 of the season, leading to limbs in the away end. A red flare was launched onto the pitch which an elderly steward treated as an IED as he reluctantly stood watching with picker in hand, before keeper Ben Amos booted it off the pitch. Half time 0-2.
Alex Neil must have been sharing out the Irn Bru’s at half time as the lads came flying out of the blocks second half, and could’ve killed the game on just 47 minutes when Wright failed to reach a cross from Stewart. Then shortly afterwards Embleton was just off target with a low shot set up by the lively as ever Pritchard. Close to the hour mark a relatively surplus Patterson was sprung into action as he dealt with a shot from Callum Lang who was clean through, before Magennis was dragged off for the dangerous Humphreys.
Wigan continued to mount the pressure as they endeavoured to get back into the game, but the Sunderland defence and keeper were coping well and limiting any attacks to the odd corner at best. Stewart had a great opportunity on 72 minutes as he attempted to repeat his fine finish away at Rotherham, though unfortunately pulled it wide of Amos’s near post. Jack Clarke was then introduced in place of Embleton, and shortly afterwards Dan Neil came on for Pritchard to bring fresh energy into the closing chapter of the game.
On 87 minutes, after some confusion around the ground the referee had again pointed to the spot after a innocuous handball by Tendayi Darikwa. Stewart made no mistake and it was goal number 22 for the Loch Ness Drogba, and three vital points in the locker coming home to Wearside. Full time 0-3.
Three goals, three points, and three wins this season over promotion rivals Wigan Athletic – has the Alex Neil era finally got going? Well we looked a lot harder to beat today, slightly more energised, and a noticeably stable at the back with Wright and Xhemajli in the middle. We were the better side and far improved by are own standards, however could’ve been a lot better as stats suggest we had a lot less of the ball, playing a lot less passes, and completing barely half of them. That being said our possession was more effective as we had more than double Wigan’s shots, triple their corners, and forced more saves.
Encouragingly we looked far more streetwise, something we’ve never really got the grips with in this division, previously pertaining to uphold some sort of higher morale standard. We took our time getting the ball back into play, if we were injured we stayed down, if we weren’t injured, we stayed down.
Wigan completely lost their head in the face of this and it enabled us to dictate the tempo at times, and turn what should have been on paper a defeat, to a cakewalk of a win for the lads. For me Alex Pritchard was man of the match as the heartbeat of all things good we did, though honourable mentions must go to Wright, Xhemajli, Gooch and goalscorer Stewart for their significant contributions. The lads travel to The Valley next Saturday hoping to make it two from two as all play-off contenders picked up big points this weekend.