As I was watching the game against Manchester United last weekend, I received a text from an internet deprived Simon Walsh asking if I could take over the match report duties for the day. Naturally, I was willing to oblige, however it did require me to immediately attempt to cast a more objective eye over precedings at Old Trafford. Whilst I might not have approved of that given I'd stocked up on crisps, pop, and the kind of predisposed malaise-filled cynicism that only years of following Sunderland can create, I certainly found myself approving of what I was seeing on the pitch.
Yes, Sunderland lost the game, but it was a very credible battling performance aligned with no shortage of quality play, stoic defending, and the odd piece of brilliant goalkeeping. In short, we gave the champions a game on their own park and although we left without any Premier League points, we were able to take plenty of positives and a little pride back to the north east with us.
However, going into a run of games against meagre opposition, only points will now do to satisfy the fans and rightly so. There can be no excuses, no 'buts', no proclamations of positives. In essence the season starts now.
Fulham, Wigan, Wolves, and Blackburn await, three of which are on home soil. Unfortunately, the poor start to the season has left us in a position where-by the results of that run may well define Sunderland's season. Do well, and we can all start looking up the table and set our sights realistically on another top half finish. Continue to stutter our way through games, only playing in patches and struggling to pick up points, and we may find ourselves unable to escape the periphery of the relegation battle for the rest of the season.
Apologists for the atrocious calender year the club are having on the pitch point to unkind fixtures at crucial times, bad fortune with injury, and the practical difficulties involved in integrating so many new players into a team. There is perhaps some merit to those arguments. No such circumstances surround the forthcoming fixtures, though.
And, without disrespecting the opposition, there is absolutely no reason for us all not to look forward to the games with relish and expectation. Granted, Sebastian Larsson's suspension and Connor Wickham's injury haven't exactly helped matters, but Bruce's latest new-look squad has started to look a lot more settled of late.
Kieron Westwood has proven himself to be a man capable of making the big save, the one he has absolutely no right to make, at the crucial time. That is something that, for me, Mignolet hasn't ever really shown in a Sunderland jersey and it is something that can be a real game-changer. Ahead of him, the back four is starting to look more composed. There certainly won't be many teams at Old Trafford this season that Manchester United will need a freak goal from a set piece to get on the scoresheet against.
Further forward, the disappointment of losing Wickham so early was softened somewhat by Ji Dong-won showing that he is able to influence games in this division right now. He isn't anything like a polished finished product, but he has a contribution to make. He retains possession very well indeed, for a start. Last weekend he even managed to put the Arsenal-trained Nicklas Bendtner to shame in that department, completing an impressive 84% of the even more impressive 38 passes he attempted. He also provided an aerial presence in the penalty box that belies his slender frame. He is ready, and shouldn't be held back any longer, especially with the Wickham injury likely to leave the squad short of attackers for a while.
This season, and against all imaginable odds, it also seems that we have had something resembling an actual left back. That Kieran Richardson would provide natural balance and attacking impetus from full back was never in question, but he has shown plenty of defensive resolve too. His far post interception to deny Darren Bent a tap-in in the first half against Villa was generally lost amidst the praise lavished upon Westwood for the second half save, but you will not see a better piece of individual defending this year. At Old Trafford, he was on hand again to clear a certain goal off the line. With demands made of the modern full back to be an all-action marauder, it is unreasonable to expect one to be in perfect defensive position at all time, and he has been caught out once or twice, but for the first time in recent memory you wouldn't necessarily identify the left back position as an obvious weakness in the Sunderland team.
Clearly, Steve Bruce is not going anywhere soon, and as long as he isn't trying to make the fans the scapegoats for his own failings, I can, reluctantly, live with that. I am certainly not pronouncing my undying support for him, or at all for that matter. I am just engaging the primary weapon of the seasoned Sunderland fan in the fight against perpetual misery – blind and blissfully unjustified faith. In other words, Ellis Short's stubborn backing of him has forced me to seek out and embrace the positives for the sake of what is left of my own sanity. Battered me and my dissension into submission. As far as I am concerned the season starts here. Make it a good'un!