A missed opportunity: five reflections on Sunderland v Bristol City

Sunderland were held to a goalless draw by Bristol City on Saturday afternoon in the Sky Bet Championship on the club’s International Fans’ Day.

Some exceptional goalkeeping from City keeper Max O’Leary kept the scores level, as Mike Dodds’ wait for a first home win in his third interim spell continues.

2WT8G9N Sunderland manager Mike Dodds gestures during the Sky Bet Championship match at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland. Picture date: Saturday March 16, 2024.

Here are the key talking points:


Dodds made a number of references in the build-up to this game about Sunderland’s response from their Easter Monday humiliation from Blackburn Rovers. In his pre-match programme notes, Sunderland’s interim head coach spoke about how “unacceptable” their 5-1 defeat was, and how he “challenged” the players to respond.

And despite there still being no home win in Dodds’ third interim spell in charge, there was a distinct improvement in performance.

The Black Cats began the match with a greater flair and threat than they showed throughout Monday’s defeat, and produced a number of clear-cut opportunities; had it not been for the superb goalkeeping performance from O’Leary, Sunderland would have leapfrogged the Robins in the division.


“If their goalkeeper isn’t man of the match, I’ll be amazed.”

Those were the words of Dodds in his post-match press conference, and the similar sort of praise for Max O’Leary came from his own boss, Liam Manning, after the game.

Sunderland tallied up 14 shots within the first 45 and should have probably had the game out of sight, but the goalkeeping excellence from O’Leary kept Manning’s side in the contest.

Twice the Black Cats struck the bar (the first time, though, resulted from a fine tip onto the woodwork from O’Leary), but there was just no way through for the home side.

This performance felt a bit like the Sunderland of old under Tony Mowbray, but they were denied what would have been a big win due to some “outstanding” goalkeeping from O’Leary.


Pierre Ekwah has been a player that has divided opinion amongst supporters over recent weeks, as a dip in performance level for the Frenchman has led to criticism from sections of the fanbase.

Here though, Ekwah was back to his very best in the centre of the Sunderland midfield engine.

The ease that he showed, especially during the first half, and the control that he had on the ball were all impressive aspects of his game in a performance that caught the eye of his head coach.

Post-match, Dodds spoke about how he has to be tough on the Frenchman at times, and how “he probably hates me”, but that it’s all in hope of an improvement in performance; here was the perfect example of the benefits of Dodds’ coaching methods.

2WA2RAR Sunderland on Monday 1st January 2024. Sunderland’s Pierre Ekwah during the Sky Bet Championship match between Sunderland and Preston North End at the Stadium Of Light, Sunderland on Monday 1st January 2024. (Photo: Michael Driver | MI News) Credit: MI News & Sport /Alamy Live News


The Black Cats’ injury list has been well-documented over the period in which their season drastically began to fizzle out, but on Saturday, there was a welcome return to first-team action for Aji Alese.

The left-back’s last first-team appearance came in the 2-1 defeat to Ipswich Town at Portman Road in early-January after featuring in the Wear-Tyne derby in the FA Cup, but a reoccurrence of the same quad injury that left him out of the first half of the campaign led to another two months on the sidelines.

However, after a full 90 minutes for the under-21s in midweek, Alese came on after just over an hour on Saturday and impressed with some perfectly-timed tackles and defensive awareness within the back four.

Dodds reiterated that he owes the full-back a “duty of care” upon his return to action, so Alese will be eased back to full fitness and not thrown into the deep end, but on the basis of this performance, he may prove to be a key part of their back four in the future.


Only five games of the season are left, and it won’t be long before Sunderland’s lost play-off hopes will soon become mathematically impossible.

They lie a massive 15 points off the top six: an eye-catching figure considering that the club were only four points away after the departure of Michael Beale.

Dodds’ side travel to Leeds United on Tuesday night in a match where the hosts need to respond and get their automatic promotion bid back on track after the weekend’s defeat to Coventry.

The head coach has said that he’s not going to use the final five games to “experiment” with his squad, but they need to finish the season strongly ahead of a massive summer on the horizon.