By Tommy Isaksson
The feeling you get that exact moment before a ball is kicked for the first time in a new season is one that simply cannot be replicated. As the seconds fade away towards the referee’s whistle, you know that the excited innocence of pre-season will imminently be shattered by grim footballing realities.
No, your team probably won’t win every game this season by six goals to nil. No, that lad who has spent three seasons looking like he can’t hit a barn door isn’t a changed player after that tap-in against a pub team in pre-season. And yes, there are at least another 50-odd games ahead of you, most of them just like this one.
But within those 50-odd games will be those precious moments we have all missed so much in our months of footballing exile to our laptop screens.
Wigan got one nice and early on Saturday. 2,000 travelling supporters, who could so easily have not had a club to return to post-lockdown, saw Gwion Edwards give their side a dream start just 15 minutes in at the Stadium of Light, as he smartly tucked away the rebound from Will Keane’s woodwork-striking shot.
They shouldn’t have been surprised. Hosts Sunderland had found themselves 0-1 down within 15 minutes of each of their previous 6 season openers. Wigan added themselves to a list which neatly charts their hosts’ decline through the divisions.
Would-be champions Leicester City, Manchester City, Derby County, Charlton Athletic, Oxford United, Bristol Rovers and now Wigan Athletic. Seven seasons in a row. A goal down inside a quarter of an hour of a 10-month season.
Any attempts to cling to pre-season optimism well and truly put away. Having gone into the game without a recognised full-back and with obvious squad shortcomings in, well, most of the positions on the pitch, there wasn’t a lot of that optimism to dispose of anyway. That soon changed.
Almost straight from the restart, Sunderland sprang forward, and before last season’s captain Max Power had hardly the chance to finish beating his now Wigan badge adorned chest, the Black Cats were level.
Some charmingly League One defending allowed Ross Stewart to break into the visitors’ box where he was clumsily bundled to the ground. The ageless Aiden McGeady coolly slotted home the spot-kick, and all of a sudden, the biggest crowd of the weekend across the EFL found their voice again.
After what had been a relatively even first half, Sunderland came out strong. Soon enough, Ross Stewart rose above, of all people, last season’s 31-goal top scorer in red and white, Charlie Wyke, to nod home Elliot Embleton’s corner to put Lee Johnson’s men ahead in oh-so-sweet fashion.
The win was seen out remarkably comfortably, with the third of last season’s changes to have washed up at the Lancashire club, Jordan Jones, offering the only, albeit limited, sign of life for Wigan.
At full-time, there was very little to say against the men in red and white. After a shaky start against the always menacing Callum Lang, young Dan Neil – a midfielder by trade – recovered with an assured second-half showing at left-back.
New boy Callum Doyle was imperious in the centre of defence, the 17-year-old Manchester City loanee displaying the technical ability expected of a graduate of Pep’s academy while also sending out a firm statement that he would not be intimidated by the rough and tumble of League One. Doyle worked well in a pair with Tom Flanagan to keep Wyke quiet, much to the delight of the home support.
In midfield, Corry Evans, announced as captain before his competitive debut for the club, excelled. The former Blackburn man seemed a step or two ahead of the rest of the players on the pitch for much of the game, as one might hope to expect from a player of Championship quality playing in League One.
Sunderland have seen so many such players simply fit in at this lower level. The new captain appears determined to not be one of them. Alongside him, Luke O’Nien, finally getting a chance in the centre of the park having been used for so long as a defensive utility man, had a steady afternoon, filled with his usual boundless energy and helping Sunderland to calmly control the ball in the second half.
McGeady and Embleton were good in flashes, with the latter hoping for a significant role this term after a successful stint on loan at Blackpool last year, but it was Lynden Gooch who stole the show.
The American, who can divide opinion among supporters, seemed a man on a mission, torturing Wigan’s left-back, nearly scoring a goal of the season contender and later on, standing firm against former teammate Jones when he was forced to move to right-back following injury to Carl Winchester.
Up top, Ross Stewart’s touch and mobility offered a stark contrast to Wyke, who cut a familiarly forlorn figure at the other end.
There is still work to do on Wearside this summer. Reinforcements are very much needed, with Tottenham youngster Dennis Cirkin expected to take the club’s full back tally from zero to one this week.
Alex Pritchard, not-so-long-ago an £11million signing for Premier League Huddersfield, has since made his debut in Tuesday’s League Cup win at Port Vale, and if Sunderland can keep him, McGeady and Evans fit, it might just be that Lee Johnson has the three best footballers in the division on his hands.
Expectations, however, must be managed. Young Doyle will, presumably, have tougher days, O’Nien may take time to bed into midfield, manager Lee Johnson will occasionally get it wrong and Lynden Gooch will not play like that every week, and if he does, PSG have just signed the wrong man.
But for a season that started with that far too familiar sinking feeling, right now, a far less familiar contented optimism has reason aplenty to have taken hold on the banks of the Wear. Long may it continue.
Image: Ronnie Macdonald via Flickr