We had a great week – first league win, beat Newport comfortably, drew Manchester City in the next round, then off to Sunderland. Former Premier League Sunderland. Do you know how big their ground is? Massive! They used to be in the Premier League y’know. I’ve seen them on the telly.
Then there were the Oxford connections; Stewart Donald and ‘The Saviour’ Charlie Methven. And, of course, Chris Maguire who has started his time at Sunderland ‘on fire’. Everyone knows Mags and his ability to wind everyone up and stick it to them where it hurts. He’ll just do that to us, won’t he?
By Saturday, we’d almost talked ourselves into accepting a heavy defeat, so we’d focus on having a good day out – like visiting Middlesborough in the Cup a couple of years ago. Perhaps we were preparing for the worst. As Radio Oxford repeated constantly – 20 years ago we conceded seven there. Maybe we were protecting ourselves for another defeat just as things were starting to look up. Like the Manchester City game, defeat will mean nothing, and if you say that enough, you begin to believe it.
But, for their good start, Sunderland are a League 1 team for a reason. At the end of last season they were pretty much accepted to be the biggest shambles in professional football. Some clubs under-performed, other clubs failed, but they had excuses – lack of money, poor infrastructure. Not Sunderland, they should be able to sustain themselves as a competent Championship team as a minimum.
Sunderland’s biggest problem is the culture of failure that has dogged them for years. Sure, Donald came in with a new positivity, debts were cleared, things appear to be re-setting. As was mentioned on Saturday, his plan was to replace the sun bleached pink seats at the Stadium of Light with new bright red ones. He replaced most, but not all by time the season started. It’s a big job, bigger than he’d expected. It’s almost symbolic of the challenge he faces. This is a big ship to turn around, everything that makes them big, is also a millstone – their history, a big expectant fanbase, players with Premier League experience on big wages. As we should know, you don’t hit the bottom when you’re a football club; you just keep falling.
Had Karl Robinson taken the same approach as the fans and media, we would have lost comfortably. But Robinson has always been a good disrupter. It’s why people don’t like him. Last week, he played a vital role in our win over Burton. At MK Dons he beat Manchester United 4-0. Even last year he nearly snatched points from Wigan away that nobody expected. If you can find weak spots and work on them then things can happen, and Robinson is relentless in that challenge.
When he announced Jamie Mackie up front and left Sam Smith and Jonathan Obika out, speculation was that we were going to defend front to back. But, I think he wanted Mackie’s savvy and experience. If we could cut through the growing sense of positive satisfaction amongst the Sunderland fans and expose all the old insecurities, then perhaps we could get something from the game.
Likewise, Ricky Holmes isn’t going to respect reputations, nor John Mousinho. James Henry has too much experience to be over-awed by a big ground. These players have made careers out of defying odds, about achieving more than they rightly should.
The disruption worked a treat; Shandon Baptiste is young enough to, perhaps, not think too much about where he’s playing and what he’s achieving as well. He’s surfing on the early flush of success. Hopefully he won’t take too much notice of what people are saying about him. It’s all very unconscious at the moment, the biggest challenge comes when he become conscious of the expectations surrounding him. Marcus Browne is much the same.
What it made for was an conservative looking attack actually becoming a huge proactive threat. Sunderland fans were reminded of where they’ve fallen to, the players lost their discipline, only one of their midfield five avoided a card – Max Power’s cynical red being crucial. It meant rather than defending deep, we could put pressure much further up the field, much to the disillusion of their fans.
Our biggest challenge is to keep the likes of Holmes and Mackie playing – I’ve never heard more talk about players needing injections to play than this season. The likes of Baptiste, Browne and Whyte need to keep working and ignore the hype.
More broadly, this is undoubtedly a game we’d have expected to lose. Instead, we’ve scraped back a point from the ones we lost earlier in the season. A couple more of those and with some of the biggest away days we’ll face already behind us this year, things are looking far more positive than our league position suggests. And that might also play to our advantage in the coming weeks as teams under-estimate us.