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Barnesy’s Blog: So far, so good for Sunderland... even Benno has a smile on his face!

“The club is on the up. The mood is good. It’s been a long time coming but now it is good, let’s build for a brighter future” writes BBC Newcastle’s Nick Barnes.

Danny Roberts

TOP of the table!

While Sunderland’s starts to the previous three seasons have been as good in terms of results, on the whole, like this one - the first season in League One Sunderland had a point more after five matches than now - the fact that Sunderland are top is not insignificant.

For the first time since relegation there seems to be a self-belief and an optimism that was arguably absent in the past three seasons, with much of it down to the business done or not done in the transfer windows and a trust in using players who are homegrown.

Jack Ross and Phil Parkinson were both criticised for not blooding the Academy youngsters, both preferring to rely on experience from outside the club, a policy which almost worked, but not quite.

It may not work this season, but finally, there is a feel-good factor about a team that has progressively got better and better with players like Dan Neil, Elliott Embleton and Ross Stewart blossoming, and others like Callum Doyle and Dennis Cirkin looking like smart additions to the squad. Carl Winchester looks like a new player, and Corry Evans - in the little we have seen of him since the start of the season - has oozed class.

Sunderland Pre-Season Training Camp - Day 2
Is this our best transfer window since January 2016
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

This summer’s transfer window has arguably been the best since Sam Allardyce’s business in the January window of 2016, Roy Keane’s two windows following his appointment and Steve Bruce’s signings were good on the whole. That’s a poor indictment of the windows in between, but a stark illustration of why the club has consistently struggled.

Necessity this summer may have been behind a policy that has brought so many young players into the fold, with money still short, but it has also allowed Lee Johnson to fashion a lean and hungry squad who are determined to prove themselves. Peppered with the experience of the likes of Aiden McGeady and Corry Evans it oozes enthusiasm and potential.

Already Dan Neil is schmoozing bigger clubs and January may be a big test for the hierarchy in terms of keeping hold of the likes of Neil and Embleton, but for now, they are at Sunderland and doing the business.

I bump into fans out and about and they all now say how much they are looking forward to going to games. There’s no air of resignation as if visiting the Stadium of Light is akin to being a dutiful son or daughter begrudgingly going for Sunday lunch at the grandparents.

Now it’s a case of not getting to the Yorkshire puds and gravy quickly enough and actually enjoying the company when they get there!

Can’t beat a Sunday roast...

There’s a buzz of anticipation and an expectation of actual enjoyment. I’m enjoying the commentaries. Even Benno has a smile on his face. Of course, there’ll be bumps and scrapes along the way but so far so good.

Winning matches and an enjoyable cup run have gone a long way to restoring faith.

Who could have been anything but excited by the League Cup win at Blackpool? Even in defeat at Burton we came away with a smile on our faces at the sheer exhilaration provided by the match. On any other day, Sunderland would have notched a handsome win. Wycombe Wanderers were swept aside despite the underhand tactics which Sunderland’s youngsters commendably refused to be cowed by.

It’s a shame the international break has interrupted the momentum. The match at Sheffield Wednesday would have been an appetising top-of-the-table clash, and it is with some irony the weekend’s match with Accrington Stanley is top versus second. Who four years ago would have predicted, on the back of all the jokes about going to Accrington that first season, we would be contesting top spot in the league with John Coleman’s team?

We’re still yet to see the German duo in action, and there’s surely plenty more to come from the likes of Broadhead, Huggins, and Alves. Alex Pritchard has not yet stamped himself on the team but there’s no doubt there’s a player there from the little we have seen. I hope when Evans is fit Neil will still find a place in the starting eleven. His passing range and ability have been there for all to see.

Milton Keynes Dons v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Alex Pritchard will be looking to impress as he gets back to full fitness
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

There’s a pattern of play and while the formation may be predictable there is nothing wrong with that because of the quality on show. Keeping clean sheets is still an issue but I can see that being rectified as Cirkin, Doyle and co. grow in stature and experience.

Off the pitch, the reorganisation of the club structure has clearly been important too. We hear little from Kyril Louis Dreyfus but why should we hear from him?

He has put people in charge he trusts to do a job and ultimately the talking is done on the pitch not off. However, I have a few reservations which I hope in time will be ironed out.

The Club shop is one of them. It has been frustrating I know, for a number of people that the shop has not been open, and with income so important at this level it is perplexing as to why it is taking so long for it to re-open - especially with the footfall at the stadium in the opening matches. To be getting close to 30,000 at home matches in League One is nothing less than remarkable.

Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion - Premier League
There are still one or two issues off the pitch that require attention
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Secondly, the issue of the stadium being cashless.

This too I know is causing problems for some elderly fans who struggle with new technology and only carry cash. Without doubt it has deterred some from coming to matches and while the numbers may not be great, in the wider scheme for me, every single fan counts.

Every single one is as important as the next and once you start isolating fans they become disenfranchised and so do their friends and families. It surely can’t be beyond the wit of man in this day and age to be able to combine the two.

These are quibbles though. The club is on the up. The mood is good. It’s been a long time coming but now it is good, let’s build for a brighter future.

While I have loved going to the likes of Accrington and Burton and Cambridge, let’s hope this is the last season we shall be doing so.


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