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Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One

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It’s a long, long way from Boxing Day 2019!

Tuesday was Paddy’s first trip to the Stadium of Light since *that* Parkyball classic – and, for him, the contrast was immeasurable.

Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Tuesday was my first visit to the Stadium of Light since Boxing Day 2019. In that time, there have been wholesale changes on and off the pitch, and the evidence of this became very clear even before Bailey Wright nodded us in front.

This prolonged gap between SoL visits makes for an interesting comparison as, despite still being in the same division, the two experiences were a world apart.

Boxing Day 2019 was the height of Parkyball. Bolton Wanderers were the visitors – themselves having a tough season. In the relegation zone at the time, their visit should have been a chance to claim three points and get our own stalling season back on track.

Living away from home, getting back for home games was a rarity. A Boxing Day match against a struggling side seemed to be the ideal time to get back to a home game.

Despite being less than two years ago, only two of our starting lineup against Cheltenham – Luke O’Nien and Tom Flanagan – featured against Bolton.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

My main take from the Bolton match, which itself came after a three-month spell away from the northeast, was how flat everything about the club was. The players looked disinterested, the fans were understandably miffed off, and the manager was clueless.

The toxic atmosphere was the boiling point for fans fed up with poor performances, and it left me feeling concerned about how the club was going to finish the rest of the season.

As it was, coronavirus abruptly ended this season. Months away from football and then a few months more away from the SoL, I was excited to get back.

From Boxing Day 2019, fast forward to September 2021 and we have a very different club. The early stages this season have been very promising and walking back into my seat in the West stand I could almost instantly feel the good vibes.

The roar as the lads entered the pitch was special, and despite it being a damp Tuesday night in September, the fans made plenty of noise. It helped with what they saw on the pitch, and we’ve got a team that is worth cheering about.

Sunderland v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League One Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

From my perspective, almost every tackle and well-placed pass received applause. It’s like we are finally watching a team that deserve positive feedback, funny that isn’t it?

The early goal on Tuesday made the match feel as though a drubbing was always on the cards. Our slick, pulsating play is also something that I, like many in the Stadium of Light that night, would not have seen from a Sunderland team in many years.

My last two visits to the SoL brought about the two absolute opposites of a football team.

From being a hollow shell of a club, devoid of any confidence and forward-thinking to a side full of exciting talent gunning for promotion, the last 20 months have seen our club enter a renaissance we were in desperate need of.

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