Now, the challenges really begin.
After harvesting a promising nine points from our opening four league fixtures, games in which we’ve shown flashes of attacking promise as well as a good deal of resilience and determination to eke out results, we’re now preparing for a league fixture that will represent the stiffest test to date of our promotion aspirations.
Tuesday’s cup victory over Blackpool was a welcome bonus - a victory which showed that, when required, we can now field two starting XI’s that are strong enough to compete for victories. Progress in the cup competitions might not be a top priority this season, but winning games in any competition breeds confidence, and it would be a safe bet that the Sunderland dressing room is an upbeat place right now.
There is no doubt that this new version of Sunderland, laden with youthful vigour, is a more mobile and adaptable outfit than we’ve seen for quite some time, but it is also fair to say that we haven’t yet turned in the kind of ninety-minute performance that often defines would-be promotion challengers.
With such a marathon campaign ahead of us, gradual improvements in performance levels will be key, and this next swing of league fixtures will certainly test our ability to raise our game accordingly.
First up, it is the visit of Wycombe Wanderers at the Stadium of Light this Saturday. Second in the table, having made a strong start to their L1 campaign following a contentious Championship relegation in 2020/2021, they’ve gone about their business so far in typical fashion: getting into the faces of the opposition, drawing fouls, and generally grinding out results without much fanfare.
With that in mind, it is a fair assumption that they will bring a pocketful of their usual tricks to Wearside on Saturday, and will do everything to drag us into an ugly, stop-start slugfest. We’ll know exactly what’s coming, and hopefully, we’ll be fully prepared for it.
Much was made during the summer about glaring gaps in the squad, and there was also a good deal of debate as to whether the players already on the books were good enough (indeed, some even opined that Elliot Embleton should be sold to Blackpool, if the price was right), but I think those questions are being answered emphatically at the present moment.
For the first time in a long time, we are blessed with a crop of attacking midfielders who can play the incisive pass and unlock the opposition defence in an instant. Dan Neil’s eye-of-the-needle pass to O’Brien for our opening goal on Tuesday was a tantalising hint of what might lie ahead, style-wise. It was a measured, calculated ball that split open the defence laid the ball on a plate for Aiden O’Brien to slot it home.
Neil, along with Carl Winchester (when he eventually moves back into his natural position), Elliot Embleton, and Alex Pritchard, have undoubtedly breathed new life into Sunderland’s playmaking options. Aimless punts have now been replaced by slick, well-crafted attacking play, and the movement, both on and off the ball, is much more fluid. I also think that these players have a good amount of goals in them, as well, which is another positive.
The main issue, for me, is one of balance in the middle. With Corry Evans still absent, could it be a straight fight between Winchester and Luke O’Nien for the defensive midfield role? Winchester is certainly better in possession, but O’Nien’s energy and ball-winning ability could be crucial this weekend, and he isn’t liable to shirk a physical battle, either.
Moving from midfield to attack, the picture is quite promising, albeit with a nagging concern about how prolific we currently are in front of goal.
Fitness permitting, Ross Stewart is a shoo-in to start, but around him, the options are plentiful. Does Lee Johnson opt for O’Brien, as a reward for his exploits on Tuesday, or does Nathan Broadhead come into the equation? Sharing the goalscoring duties around our frontmen is going to be crucial this season, but we certainly have enough variety to mix things up, and that’s before you even mention Aiden McGeady, as well!
At the back, it is difficult to make a case for breaking up the partnership of Tom Flanagan and Callum Doyle. Flanagan, so often the subject of scrutiny for mistakes made, looks like a player reborn this season, and although Bailey Wright is on the comeback trail and Frederik Alves will certainly be knocking on the door soon, could it be time to give Niall Huggins a league debut, alongside Flanagan, Doyle, and Dennis Cirkin? Considering the defensive issues we encountered last season, that looks like a much more secure defensive unit.
Promotion-winning campaigns are often about overcoming hurdles and raising your game when the occasion demands it. This weekend’s game feels like one of those occasions, and with the backing of ought to be another buoyant crowd, sealing a victory against an early-season pacesetter would go a long way towards strengthening our credentials even further.