It was an absolute pleasure to be back inside The Stadium of Light on Friday night. As I meandered over to the ground some 20 minutes prior to kick off, I pondered what lay in store.
Can you feel excited, nervous and anxious all at the same time? Who knows? How exactly would the team set up? How would we play? Was I reading in to pre-season performances too much? Would it be as bad as my gut was telling me? Forgive me for that last part, but people who know me will tell you that my glass is always a little on the half empty side, meaning I was as cautious as ever when mentally assessing our chances against Derby. The Celtic shambles and everything else that came with it last week, courtesy of Mr. Gibson, certainly didn’t help of course.
You know how it all works by now; the beginning of a new season I mean. Once you push through that turnstile into an altogether better world, it’s like you’ve never been away. It’s like pulling on that old winter coat after a long, hot summer; it still feels as comfortable as ever. That feeling of belonging returns; getting into the stadium felt like I was back home. You eagerly reach your seat and greet the familiar folk; your footballing compadres. Some old faces have gone but new ones appear. This time though, I was very feeling very apprehensive. It has been a long time I was this uncertain about how a Sunderland side would start a season; especially when you think that a lot of playing personnel still remain from our wretched campaign under David Moyes.
Once the game kicked off it was apparent that the players were up for the challenge ahead of them. In turn, our supporters responded to what they saw. There were songs sang that hadn’t been sang for many months; some for many a season in fact.
Sunderland were bright and busy in the opening exchanges, but that feeling of deja vu quickly returned when Bradley Johnson slammed home the opener after 11 minutes.
The way the players and our supporters responded struck me.
The Stadium of Light produced echoes from atmospheres of the past. I expected Sunderland to wilt. I expected a second Derby goal before half-time and the game to be over before it had even started. It is, after all, what we have become accustomed to as a supporter of this club in recent years.
Instead, I saw eleven players roll up their sleeves and respond to going a goal down. I saw chances created and pressure applied. Tackles were made; second balls were challenged, and won. Yes, individual and collective mistakes were made but at least we played without fear, and eventually, our hard work paid off with a deserved equaliser. Chewing the fat at half time has never been so positive. In fact, I cannot remember a time when I was so upbeat. That, unfortunately, is a sad indictment of how disastrous the past few seasons have been.
The Championship is brutal, we all know that. It is a 46 game slog; a marathon made up of playing Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday; with the odd Friday and Sunday chucked in for good measure. I heard someone describe it as unique, and I couldn’t disagree at all. Upwards of 12, 14 teams must fancy their chances of acquiring one of those hallowed top six spots in May.
Are we one of them? It is far, far too early to tell. Without doubt, what we are is a work in progress. Jason Steele looked more composed. Lamine Kone turned in a vastly improved performance, and Ty Browning looks like he possesses all the necessary attributes to be a good centre-back in this league. Catts and Ndong provide so much energy, enabling them to play as a two in the centre of the park. If we can keep McGeady fit, he will be a massive player this season. His creativity will be vital if the likes of Vaughan and Grabban are to get goals. As I said, mistakes were made and there were some shaky performances, but after the past five or six seasons, I prefer to stick to the pluses. We’ve more than had our fill of negativity.
If it hadn’t been for the width of a post, Sunderland would have came out with all three points; deservedly so if you ask me. What a shot in the arm that would have been for everyone connected with the club, particularly Grayson and his players. Maybe that would just have been greedy, and as it was, we settled for a draw.
It was the manner in which we obtained our first point of the season that encourages me though. I saw fight, commitment, effort and desire; traits that have been massively missing from Sunderland sides over the past few seasons.
The home support recognised the efforts of the players at full-time. It is worth remembering that we have to be patient. Some of these lads are young footballers, and will need to get used to playing regularly, in a demanding league, for a massive club. What they lack in ability they will more than make up for in hunger and work rate.
Once Simon Grayson moves a couple on, and brings in more players that he feels will fit in here for the right reasons, we’ll start to build a better picture of where we are heading. We have Duncan Watmore and Paddy McNair to come back too. When that transfer window slams shut, we can all finally get down to the nitty gritty of this unforgiving league.
What I saw on Friday night bodes well for the future. A lonesome green shoot of recovery may have even poked its head through the hallowed Stadium of Light turf on Friday night. Here’s hoping. I’m already looking forward to seeing what comes next.