The new Sunderland AFC - under the stewardship of the exciting trio of Donald, Methven and Ross - currently sit in fifth place of the SkyBet League One table after playing twelve games so far this term. If anyone had offered us the position before the season’s start, I’m sure we’d have all taken a solitary loss at this point - although we’d have liked to convert a couple more of the draws into wins.
While we are only a quarter of the way through what has already promised to be a grueling season, our next five games could prove to be absolutely vital if we want to make a real statement of intent.
Shrewsbury Town (A) - 20th October
First up, we face a Shrewsbury side who find themselves in 17th place after falling from the heights of last season’s promotion push under Paul Hurst - now the manager of Championship outfit Ipswich Town, where he replaced ex-Sunderland gaffer Mick McCarthy in the summer.
Backed by another fantastic sell-out away following, this game is absolutely crucial for Sunderland so that we make up some ground on those above us, who all earned valuable wins on Saturday while we were left wondering what to do on an afternoon without club football.
If your ultimate aim is to achieve promotion, you have to pinpoint games like this one as must-win fixtures - that’s not big headed, but a simple fact. Shrewsbury aren’t going to be right up there come the end of the season and, as such, we have to ensure we dispatch of them by whatever means necessary. Hopefully, the week off hasn’t halted our momentum.
Doncaster Rovers (A) - 23rd October
Quickly following the game against the Shrews comes a trip to south Yorkshire as Jack Ross leads his men into Doncaster to take on a side who have very much gone under the radar so far this season - as of the time of writing, they sit directly above us in fourth place after an absolutely fantastic start to life under Grant McCann.
The ex-Peterborough United boss has made quite the impression at the Keepmoat Stadium, but Sunderland will be looking to put on a show against a possible promotion rival in this one.
In terms of ‘top sides’, Sunderland haven’t really faced many this season so it’s difficult to gauge how we’ll fare in a game which can probably be counted as a six pointer, but what you can probably guarantee is goals - like Sunderland, McCann’s side have no issue scoring but probably concede too many which is why they have so many draws.
For the season ahead, this could be a huge game - a win against a side also going for promotion would put the rest of the teams up there on notice, but a loss would likely be a reality check and a reminder that we need to do more if we’re going to properly contend with Peterborough and Portsmouth for a spot in the top two places.
Southend United (H) - 27th October
To round off our return back to league action this week, we finally have a home game back at the Stadium of Light - the first in League One for a whole 25 days, and if that doesn’t whet the appetite then I’m not sure what will.
Southend have endured a difficult start to the season; however, their form has picked up dramatically in recent weeks having won four and drawn one of their last five league games.
The key battle on the day will be between League One’s current top scorer Josh Maja and former Sunderland defender Michael Turner, who now plies his trade with The Shrimpers and has done so for the last year or so.
Still, in front of a home crowd that should be bursting at the seam for the long-awaited return to the Stadium of Light, this is a real opportunity to make the most of the atmosphere and continue our unbeaten home run.
Plymouth Argyle (A) - 3rd November
With just seven points from their thirteen games so far, Plymouth find themselves propping up League One after only one win so far this season.
These statistics are the reason why we simply cannot afford to take anything other than three points from our south coast opposition - though, in years gone by, a game against a team who can’t buy a win is usually a dead cert for a Sunderland slip-up.
While it looks like an easy victory on paper, it’ll be a tough old journey of over 800 miles in total for the Lads. Jack Ross will demand nothing less than a win, though, especially ahead of what looks like will be an incredibly difficult run of fixtures against teams going for promotion.
Wycombe Wanderers (H) - 17th November
Playing against a team sat currently in 18th place at home looks right now like a perfect opportunity to round off a set of fixtures that could decide our prospects in this league, or at least set us up for some seemingly tougher fixtures that follow.
Obviously a lot can change between now and the middle of November but, much like the game against Plymouth, Jack Ross will want to see us take maximum points against a team that have struggled so far this campaign.
The aim going into every game is to get as much as we possibly can from it, but as we all know this doesn’t always materialise as it should. The next five league fixtures are certainly fantastic opportunities to put in some big performances and put a high percentage of the points on offer on the board.
These games feel even more important when taking into consideration that we then face three difficult fixtures against current promotion rivals one after the other. Walsall, Barnsley and Accrington Stanley have all enjoyed positive starts to the season, which is why there is a significance placed on the preceding five games to see us placed as high as possible in the league table.
By the time all eight games have been played, we should have a clear indication whether we really are the real deal, or whether the play-offs are our best bet to see us back in the Championship for a hopefully better experience than our last.
It goes without saying, but the next 5 fixtures really could make or break our season.