After one of the most frustratingly-timed international breaks of recent times, all roads lead back to the Stadium of Light this Saturday for another top-of-the-table meeting that represents an excellent chance for Sunderland to burnish their promotion credentials.
Accrington are our opponents, and given how recent League One results have fallen in our favour, the game is a fantastic opportunity to cement our position as an early-season pacesetter - and when was the last time we could say that about Sunderland?
In the two weeks since that superb victory over Wycombe, we’ve added two noteworthy signings, in the shape of Bayern Munich duo Leon Dajuka and Ron-Thorben Hoffmann, as well as bidding a long-overdue farewell to Will Grigg, who was farmed out to Rotherham on a season-long loan.
Dajuka, who is by all accounts a rapid and skilful forward, ought to add further potency to what is already an impressive-looking attack, and Hoffmann may well go some way to solving the conundrum of who is our undisputed first-choice goalkeeper this season.
The wind of change that brought an influx of new signings to the club has also carried away much of the deadwood (okay, there might still be a decent League One player in Grigg, but in reality, he’d had more than enough chances to impress in red & white) and even a cursory glance at our squad suggests that we now have both the quality and the depth to mount a sustained promotion challenge.
Smatterings of scepticism about whether the new approach would yield results have been replaced with excitement about the makeup of our squad, and what we can achieve this season.
After what turned out to be a more-than-productive transfer window for us, there is a genuine feeling of optimism around the club at the moment, but it is still early days, and this positive start must be maintained through what, at first glance, looks like a relatively favourable group of September fixtures.
Before the Wycombe game, there was much talk about the roughhouse tactics they might deploy in order to throw us off our rhythm, and that was exactly what happened, but we ultimately navigated our way through that game superbly.
With that in mind, we ought to have nothing to fear from Accrington, or any other team who visits the SOL this season. This is not about arrogance or entitlement, but it is simply a matter of ensuring that, in front of our own fans, we always try to ensure that games are played on our terms, and that we don’t wilt if the opposition turn up for a battle rather than a game of football.
The major positive of this international break is that it will have afforded Lee Johnson ample time to work with his squad on the training pitch, as well as allowing the new signings to bed in and get to know their new teammates. As a result, we ought to be heading into Saturday’s match with a fresh, fully-charged squad, ready to attack this fixture in front of what should be another buoyant crowd.
In the early stages of the season, a new style of play, one based around energy and dynamism, was clearly emerging, and hopefully, that style has been worked on during recent training sessions.
Against Wycombe, we weathered an early storm, and eventually gained control, but it would be fabulous to see us get straight onto the front foot and really demonstrate exactly what we are capable of.
Post-Wycombe, my fellow Roker Report writer Tom Albrighton discussed the emergence of Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton, and how exciting it is to have some home-grown prospects at the core of what we are trying to achieve.
He was 100% right, and when I think of promotion-winning Sunderland teams of years gone by, squads that included the likes of Craig Russell and Michael Gray (1995/1996), Michael Bridges (1998/1999) and Grant Leadbitter (2006/2007), it is a source of great pride that Neil & Embleton are taking the chance that they have been given, and hopefully they can play a major role in this season’s efforts.
It is also worth noting that a large percentage of our current squad are not tainted by our failings of recent seasons, and I think this could be of huge benefit to them. Hopefully, they won’t be burdened by any extra pressure and fear of failure, and can play with the kind of freedom and self-expression that has often been lacking from Sunderland teams of recent years.
This is a very exciting period in our recent history, and we have passed all but one of this season’s tests. Saturday is undoubtedly another one, but confidence should be high, and that really ought to be a major factor as we aim for victory.