Sometimes, for all the talk about systems, tactics and playing between the lines, football boils down to who wants to win the most.
This was one of those occasions as Sheffield United, who were Sunderland’s superiors in every possible department, recorded a first away victory of the season and ended their 26-year wait for a win on Wearside.
“We’re a club on the up,” debutant Clayton Donaldson, whose scored both the visitors’ goals, said. “Once you get the right mentality, it’s a hard thing to stop. I’ve seen it all week, the morale the boys have got and also the togetherness. I’ve experienced it before and only good things can come from that.”
Although confidence was undoubtedly a factor, a theory John O’Shea was keen to peddle afterwards, the Sunderland defender would be doing both United and his own a club a grave disservice if he attributed the result entirely to self-belief.
Relegated from the Premier League last season and having now lost eight of their previous 14 matches at home, Simon Grayson’s side were understandably shaken by Donaldson’s opener midway through the first-half.
But, long before the deadline-day signing from Birmingham City beat Robbin Ruiter at his near post, it had become apparent why the visitors are fifth in the table while their opponents, 15 places lower, look set to continue on a downward spiral.
United were combative, courageous and, when the opportunity arose, creative..
Donaldson, who tweaked a hamstring doubling United’s lead before Jack Rodwell’s late consolation, said: “I don’t think I have had a better debut, I’ve scored on my debut before but I don’t think I’ve ever got two, especially away from home. Two goals at Sunderland, it doesn’t come much better. I got told when I came here that our home record is great but it’s important to get that first away win of the season.”
Despite his Championship pedigree, Donaldson’s arrival was not greeted with universal approval when it was announced nearly a fortnight ago. Acquired for £50,000, less than Rodwell’s reported weekly wage, the former City, Brentford and Crewe Alexandra attacker’s presence did not satisfy the demand among a section of United’s support for significant funds to be invested following last term’s promotion.
But Wilder, who started his coaching career with non-league Alfreton Town before moving on to the bright lights of Halifax, has transformed the squad’s fortunes by prioritising substance over expensive ‘statements of intent’. It is policy borne partly out of necessity as United reacquaint themselves with a division where multi-million-pound transfer fees are fast becoming the norm.
However, after comparing Donaldson’s performance to those of Rodwell and Didier Ndong, Sunderland’s £13,6 million purchase from FC Lorient, Wilder must be tempted to keep the purse strings drawn tight.
“I didn’t get to Sheffield until late that night and everything was completed by about 10.45pm, 10 or 15 minutes before the deadline,” Donaldson explained. “It was certainly an eventful day, and one to remember. When I woke up that day I certainly didn’t think I’d be on the move.
“I spoke to Harry Redknapp on the day, I trained in the morning as normal and it was only afterwards he took me aside and said: ‘There are a few clubs interested, it’s entirely up to you what you do.’
“He said ‘I want you to stay’ but he bought a lot of players in and I thought it would be difficult (to keep my place). It was totally my decision. He’d made 14 new signings and I thought to myself he was going to play most of them so that kind of made my decision for me.”
HARRY’S GAME HELPED
Donaldson became the first United player to score at the Stadium of Light since Gareth Taylor in 1998 when he beat Ruiter from 20 yards out.
Although questions will be asked of the Sunderland goalkeeper, he made amends soon after by turning the centre-forward’s header over the crossbar.
“It’s always nice to make a bit of history,” Donaldson said. “The three points was the main thing. Anything extra is a bonus.
“What I saw from us out there is what you need in the Championship to do well. They’re a fantastic set of lads.”
Grayson, who took charge during the close season, cut an increasingly agitated figure on the touchline as Sunderland failed to make the most of that reprieve.
“The first goal is going to be crucial in a game like that,” O’Shea acknowledged. “It’s something we have to make sure we’re getting on top of. That’s a key factor in getting the fans behind us and getting everyone on board.
“It turns so quickly through the confidence factor. Winning football matches does that. If we can do that, a lot of things will turn.”
James Vaughan volleyed wide just before the interval but United reasserted themselves and doubled their advantage when Donaldson was released by substitute David Brooks.
Rodwell headed home Callum McManaman’s set-piece with seconds remaining as Sunderland, who unlike United seemed completely bereft of ideas, finally registered an attempt on target.
“I felt a little twinge in my hamstring as I ran on to the ball,” Donaldson said. “I took another stride and felt another twinge.
“I was thinking to myself: ‘I’m not going to make it to the goal here with the pain I’m feeling.’
“But I looked up and saw the keeper coming off his line, so it made my mind up and it probably did me a favour,
“That’s why I took the shot early. I probably wouldn’t have scored had I taken another touch.”