“Earlier in the season we would have lost that game”.
The words of Robert Snodgrass in post-match conversation with BBC Radio Norfolk’s Chris Goreham, following yesterday’s bruising encounter at the Stadium of Light – and he’s probably right.
Such has been City’s form on the road, few predicted anything other than defeat yesterday – I understand the Sky Sports pundits were unanimous in this regard – and faced with a Sunderland side fresh from a cup victory over Chelsea it was difficult to argue against.
Home wins in the Premier League against Man City and Newcastle also suggested that, despite their league position, the Black Cats are capable of beating anyone on their day when on home turf.
I was therefore a tad surprised that contentment was in such short supply upon that final blast of Martin Atkinson’s whistle. Twitter, Canary Call and the message boards were awash with moans and groans from those who perceived Chris Hughton – yes, it was all his fault… again – to have set his stall out for a 0-0.
“Only one substitution, and it was too late”.
“Settling for a draw…”.
“Poyet going for it, City make no changes. Says it all”.
I can only assume those who have been baying for Hughton’s blood, and who have had a frustrating few weeks, were simply grasping at the first straw available to revive their favourite hashtag.
All of which is a shame – especially with a modicum of peace having broken out around the old place in the last fortnight – because I actually thought it was a good point. Controversial I appreciate, but having witnessed us either surrender meekly or get completely blown away on the majority of away trips, to grind out a point in tricky circumstances strikes me as a small step forward.
Of course it was far from perfect and there remains plenty for Hughton and his team to work on, but wind the clock back a few weeks and I’d have given anything for an ugly away draw, especially one that’s accompanied by a clean sheet.
The accusation of Hughton setting the side up to nick a point was baffling. Managers who do that don’t normally play with two strikers and even if they do, when one is substituted on 77 minutes he’d be replaced by a midfielder. The City boss did neither of those things, which says to me he set out to win the game… or am I missing something?
Similarly, his selection of two wingers – the inclusion of Robert Snodgrass admittedly forced perhaps by the injury to Jonny Howson – didn’t smack of someone who was intent on grinding out a draw. And with Nathan Redmond growing increasingly anonymous as the game wore on – after a sparkling first-half – Hughton could have been forgiven for bolstering the left-side by bringing on Javier Garrido, but he resisted.
Another area of improvement in recent weeks has been the number of chances created in front of goal and this continued yesterday. Despite being under pressure for long second-half spells City always looked a threat on the break; Gary Hooper and Ricky van Wolfswinkel both missing when, on another day, their efforts could have flown in past Mannone.
A few weeks ago we couldn’t carve out a chance for toffee, so surely another small step forward?
Ricky, in particular, may feel he should have done better when faced one-on-one with the Sunderland keeper, but it’s still early days in his quest for match fitness and at least he did force the keeper into a save. It was great to see the Dutchman back on the pitch and even better to see him walk away from Wes Brown’s ridiculous attempt to scythe him in two.
If I were to be critical I’d have to again question their ability to keep the ball – particularly when under the cosh – with the ball all too often being given away cheaply when hassled and harried.
When under pressure the last thing you can afford to do is invite more but in those nerve-jangling closing stages it happened just a little too often. But with Michael Turner at his belligerent best on his return to Wearside City’s defence did *just* enough and even survived John Ruddy’s failed attempt at filling in at right-back; Ki Sung-Yueng’s effort gloriously earning three points instead of a winning goal.
The forced omission of Howson was obviously a blow for Hughton and there’s little argument that, despite the voracious work-rate of Bradley Johnson, the quality of passing and guile suffered a notch as a result.
So, while yet again we may may have veered off slightly from a famous Brazilian’s perception of the beautiful game it was definitely a point gained and one that sets us up nicely for a Boxing Day date with Fulham.
With those around us in the table losing ground I’d have to say yesterday – despite what the miserablists may say – was a good one.
We have momentum right now… and that can only be a good thing.