I am loving watching Sunderland play in League One at the moment. I’ve been a Sunderland fan since was born, and although I’ve been going to matches since I was very small, my first clear memories were games under Roy Keane and Steve Bruce (I’m sorry for making some readers feel rather old).
Consequently, the only games I can really remember watching have been from this last dire decade - a decade jam-packed with relegation battles, poor performances from lazy, arrogant players and a humiliating double relegation.
The only real enjoyment of watching Sunderland came from our daring cup run in 2013/14. Beating Manchester United on penalties in the semi-final and hearing the immortal words, “MANNONE SAVES! AND SUNDERLAND GO TO WEMBLEY!” cemented our place in the final at Wembley, only for Manchester City to crush our truly daring dreams.
Aside from the cup run, the above makes for a depressing read really. That’s why watching Sunderland playing in League One this season has actually been a pleasure. One particularly pleasing aspect has been observing the amount of positivity demonstrated by the players and staff - it feels like a brand new club.
Take the Gillingham game, for example - the lads conceded three minutes into the game with a poor defensive error. “Old” Sunderland’s heads would have dropped, which would have inevitably led to more goals being conceded. However, “new” Sunderland cracked on and we retaliated by scoring in the next minute. Furthermore, in our opening match of the season against Charlton we had a very poor first half and conceded a penalty. Again though, we came out fighting in the second half and eventually won 2-1.
Another aspect of this positivity is how we put this into practice.
It sounds basic but most of the lads are able to pick out players to complete passes and build play well. Like I said, it’s basic, but it’s the foundations needed to make players comfortable with one another when making moves. Bearing in mind a lot of our first team are a mixture of new, old and academy lads, this is especially important.
I don’t think the “old” Sunderland could have managed player integration well enough to even form a pass on the pitch.
As well as this positive play created by Sunderland, I like how we aren’t reliant on one player to score goals, as has been the case in previous seasons. Players feel confident enough to have a go, and it isn’t the absolute end of the world if they miss it.
Positivity created by the manager and the coaching staff is reflected in player confidence on the pitch. Goals are being scored by different players in the team. Lynden Gooch and George Honeyman have scored one each, Max Power and Chris Maguire have netted two each and Josh Maja has blasted four goals so far this season.
This has to be the result of the creation of a more positive atmosphere behind the scenes within the Sunderland camp.
This past summer has seen a much needed overhaul of staff and players. What’s particularly important for me is that Jack Ross has stuck to his word of getting rid of or not playing players who don’t want to play for the club. This includes a contract termination for Jack Rodwell and a loan spell to Strasbourg for Lamine Kone.
Moreover, the likes of Lee Cattermole and Bryan Oveido must have proven to Ross, through their attitudes in training, that they want to play for the club - hence their positions in the starting line-ups recently. I think that’s a very important contributing factor for the creation of a positive Sunderland team. Both could have very easily opted to leave the club during the summer - Oveido particularly - but here they are putting in their fair share of the graft needed to secure promotion from League One.
Social media is a good indicator of how the team carry this positive energy, on and off the field. This week Sunderland’s official Twitter account posted a videos of Gooch nutmegging his teammates, with Honeyman in the background of the training field performing a what can only be described as a dance that even your dad would find questionable. It’s good to see the players having a laugh, there’s clearly a hard working environment in training but it’s the small and daft stuff that shows a strong team spirit that is reflected on the pitch.
If the Sunderland Twitter page can’t convince you that there’s a good, positive team spirit being built, I happily direct you to Lynden Gooch and Max Power’s Instagram stories after the Gillingham game. Gooch’s video of Honeyman’s dancing and Power’s antics with Donald Love reflect a relaxed environment amongst the players - Power acts as if he’s been part of the club for years.
It’s early days in the season but I like this new Sunderland a lot, they’re actually a pleasure to watch. In my opinion, being relegated from the Championship is exactly what we needed in terms of rebuilding the club. This reconstruction has led to a positive atmosphere both on and off the field for the lads and I’m looking forward to seeing more of it.