We’ve taken seven points from the last nine available, and scored two victories built on resilience, determination, and a never-say-die attitude - but only an immensely frustrating draw have prevented the past week from representing a perfect return to form for Sunderland.
As one storm was wreaking havoc, another has (perhaps temporarily) calmed down somewhat, as Lee Johnson’s team breathed new life into their promotion challenge by ending the week with a victory against Cambridge.
Stability seems to have returned and the league table now looks much more favourable.
Of course, despite what fans of a more pessimistic persuasion might have claimed, we were never actually out of the promotion race, but why look at the actual league table when the form table is a more attractive proposition?
Make no mistake, this was a sorely-needed win.
Following the draw at Shrewsbury, the post-match fallout was predictably ugly. All of the personal barbs towards Johnson, conspiracy theories about the ownership, and demands for change were being recycled once again.
The following morning, Johnson’s observation about Ross Stewart’s work rate (honest, but misguided, in my view) pushed him further into the line of fire, and consequently backed him into a corner that he should never have found himself in.
Things weren’t helped on Friday night as Sam Allardyce resurfaced at a Wearside talk-in, during which he played to the gallery, referencing Yann M’Vila, a rumoured return to the club as manager a couple of years ago, and a host of other lines that fuelled a nostalgia-driven fire that bears a striking resemblence to the longing for Roy Keane to come back and ‘save us’.
The upshot of all this was that he desperately needed to steer the team to a victory, but thankfully, his trust in his players clearly remains very strong, and in playing conditions that were absolutely brutal at times, they delivered, but this was another game that could’ve easily resulted in more frustration.
As Alex Pritchard channelled his inner Matt Le Tissier to score direct from a corner (officially chalked up as an own goal), it seemed as though it would be the springboard for us to win the game. However, a prompt equaliser from Sam Smith was another stinger. At some stage, the issue of building on an early goal simply HAS to be addressed.
In fairness, this was an occasion on which we kept our composure, and Nathan Broadhead’s goal, a strike of the highest class from outside the box, edged us back into a lead that we would never lose, despite having to ensure some lengthy spells of Cambridge pressure in the second half, as well as missing some good chances to make the game safe.
Individually, players like Bailey Wright and Lynden Gooch stood strong, Broadhead was impressive, and despite not covering himself in glory with the concession of Cambridge’s goal, Thorben Hoffmann upped his game in the second half, as the conditions made his job that much harder. It was nervy, it was fraught, but ultimately, this is the kind of result that can, and should, toughen the team up and prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead.
In the grand scheme of things, what does this victory do for Lee Johnson?
At the moment, it is as though the manager is walking across a tightrope, and that one slip could spell absolute calamity.
The Ipswich defeat, the Shrewsbury draw, and now this hard-fought win. It is a strange cycle of optimism, pessimism, and then a return to optimism. He rarely seems to accrue enough goodwill to convince people that he remains the right man for the job, and yet his results have not been disastrous enough to merit a change of head coach.
For those who remain unconvinced by him, this week will have done little to change their opinions, but if he can steer the team onto another strong run of results, he will slowly but surely find himself in credit once again.
There is little doubt, however, that he clearly retains the support of his players, and that was evident on Saturday. They might have experienced dips in form collectively and individually, but those lads gave everything they had to secure the result, and that is encouraging.
Wednesday night’s EFL Trophy match against Oldham will doubtless feature a much-changed XI, with most eyes on the league visit of Oxford on Saturday. Injuries are starting to bite, and it will interesting to see how Johnson deals with the situation, but with January not far away, it doesn’t have to be a doomsday scenario.
As everyone knows, the picture can change quickly in L1, and we’ve certainly benefited from that this week. Hopefully, this is the start of a genuine upturn, rather than an all-too-brief renaissance.