I’ve been getting this odd feeling on matchdays recently and it took me a while to work out what it was.
I wasn’t sure at first, because I only had vague memories of having this bizarre calmness, as opposed so a feeling a slight dread, or resignation.
It dawned on me eventually that what I was feeling in the period leading up to kick-off when Sunderland take to the field in League One was confidence.
Confidence that the team will put in a performance and more often than not, get a result.
I think I’d briefly flirted with it in the first half of our first attempt to escape the clutches of the third tier, when Jack Ross’ side were looking good. We were getting results and hovering around the top-two.
But even then, there was a nagging doubt about something. We didn’t really have a swagger about us, I couldn’t put my finger on what our gameplan was, but it was working, so why should I have cared?
But it all unravelled, and it was maybe because we didn’t have that solid style of play ingrained into how we went about our business, that we forgot what we were about in the later stages of that season. We simply attempted to limp home and achieve promotion by just getting results by hook or by crook.
This often meant we couldn’t get over the line, and we drew too many games via indecision on whether we should push to finish sides off, or sit back and try and hold on to leads. In the end we did neither, and I’m not sure if the manager or players knew whether or not we needed to stick or twist in the end.
Probably the less said about Phil Parkinson the better, but he had a regimented way of playing, and the players knew what their part in the grand plan was. But nobody really believed in it. It was dire, and wasn’t going to get us anywhere quickly. It became a chore to watch the club I love.
And now, well, it’s light years away from where we stood around 13 months ago. It actually looks like we have a plan, and I like the plan. We have a go, and I actually enjoy watching us play. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I could say that and really mean it.
Two 5-0 scorelines, and throw in a 3-0 in the last five League One fixtures, and that is clearly going to help things along in making the statement about how I like watching us play, but even a 5-1 defeat managed to provide optimism, which is not something I’d ever expect.
I found myself feeling proud of The Lads following our heavy defeat at the Emirates just before Christmas, and it was down to how we went about the task in hand. We gave Arsenal a huge scare with the way we had the confidence to take the game to them, even when we went behind and they thought they had it all sewn up, but we stepped up, and it was a joy to watch... wey, apart from the Arsenal goals.
There are also the days where this young squad have to earn the right to play, and in recent weeks I think they’ve done just that. I was at Portman Road when a buoyant Ipswich side, having just changed manager, attempted to bully us in a physical game in the middle of the park. But we dug in and scored a great equaliser because we play forward and go at the opposition - because it’s our way of playing.
Then we come on to our clash with Wycombe in front of the cameras. First off, I love the fact that despite having 12 players ruled out, we bring some young lads back into the fold from loans away, and back ourselves to go and win the game against arguably League One’s most physical side on their own patch.
Then, having taken the lead through another brilliantly worked goal, we get pegged back and go behind, but we still play our way because that’s the team that we are and go on to regain the lead.
It’s that youthful confidence to go and attack whoever is front of us, and credit has to go to Lee Johnson and the backroom staff for instilling that methodology that has been there from the outset this season, but is constantly being refined.
It will lead to inevitable bumps in the road - a young squad being encouraged to have that outlook will have the odd week where things don’t go to plan. But the more we progress through the season, the more confident I’m getting (just as I did against Wycombe) that I will enjoy what I see and I like what we’re trying to do.
Who knows how this campaign will pan out, but the first half of this season has provided all the evidence on the direction that we’re headed, and it’s nice to have a style of play that I can buy into and look forward to watching.
Considering the impact of the summer transfer window, I’m looking forward to seeing what January brings in the hope it will take us up a gear. It’s exciting.
It’s a nice way to begin 2022, I could get used to this being confident lark - it’s fun.