That a week is a long time in football is a well-worn cliché, but more often than not in such cliches, we find an element of truth.
We turned up at Adams Park one Saturday ready to begin our charge through the second half of a season which it felt was the one to take us to the promised land of err – Millwall, Reading and Birmingham City.
A week later, we were reflecting on seven dropped points.
So now, as we prepare to welcome the side to whom we seemed eternally wed to at this level back to the North-East for the 97th time in the last 4 years, the creeping clouds of concern appear to be sneaking back in.
This time, we must ensure the clouds pass before the rains of Spring arrive.
Firstly, some perspective amidst a mild blip. Almost every title-winning team at any level will have bad weeks, and we can bank on Wigan, Rotherham and whoever else fancies a shot at going up to do the same. Probably multiple times each.
But more pressingly, we should look at what actually happened last week.
At Wycombe, we were cut open repeatedly in an absorbing encounter between what seemed to be two very good teams. And while we were cut open, we found a way back into the game. Some good saves from Patterson, some big blocks from both centre-halves – ultimately to be undone by set-pieces.
Typically, goals conceded from set-pieces are unacceptable, but even this seems harsh.
Wycombe, to put it bluntly, were bloody huge. They have quality delivery and some seriously heavy artillery. While conceding from set-pieces, especially with the last kick, is infuriating, stopping that bombardment is easier said than done. We won’t face an aerial challenge of that quality again this season.
So, back home to Lincoln, where we were objectively rubbish but most of our problems could be traced to individual errors and a problem on the ball.
The former hardly needs addressing – League One defenders all make mistakes, but lucky for us, everyone else in League One also has League One defenders – but the latter was more concerning.
The Imps had a plan: let Flanagan have the ball. Not a complicated plan and not a hard one to counter, but counter it we did not. Time after time, our weakest distributor was allowed to creep forward, and time after time, the willingness of his teammates to come and get it off him was minimal.
Admittedly, the lack of Evans and Wright leaves us bereft of obvious leaders, but even Dan Neil, usually rightfully demanding of the ball safe in the knowledge he will do something better with it than anyone else on the pitch, was not forthcoming with assistance for the Northern Irishman. All it needed was someone to go and receive a two-yard pass from him to make the Lincoln forwards engage. They weren’t very good, we just didn’t have the smarts to beat the plan they pitched in minute 1.
Which gives us the perfect route into Saturday. I am fully aware I have skipped Accrington but in the interests of brevity, let’s just say conceding late goals is not a good habit but is far from the first thing we need to panic about just yet.
We have the perfect route into Saturday because of what happened at Fratton in October. We got hammered in a swimming pool by a Portsmouth team happy to play water polo while we insisted on impersonating Pep’s Barca.
Badly impersonating, I should add.
We did not adapt to the opposition’s plan or the conditions, even with Wright and Evans present. We must show more guile, more tact, to avoid losing games more to ourselves than our opponents.
Meetings with Portsmouth have a quirky habit of defining long patches of our season. That 4-0 defeat ended a run of 7 wins in 8 in all competitions – we were not long after to find ourselves on the run that had many calling for Lee Johnson’s head. Last season’s win at Fratton took us on a wave of belief on our onward march to break the Wembley curse, while the home 1-3 reverse exposed defensive frailties not seen in an opening to the season based on being miserly and hard to break down.
Currently, they find themselves incapable of scoring a goal while we have developed a recent liking for conceding them.
While we turn to Danny Batth, to arrest their half of this mutual shoddiness, they have turned to Tyler Walker, who has somewhat lost his way (the only way anyone ends up in Portsmouth) since a loan campaign at Lincoln which saw him score a couple of goals to put the final nail in Jack Ross’s coffin what feels like a short eternity ago.
Sunderland must cope with his mobility and the pace of Marcus Harness, who we may see line up centrally once more, having given us all sorts of problems there previously.
However, they are 9th, with just 10 league wins all season.
They too have had a bad new year, taking 2 points off Cambridge, MK and Wimbledon. They are no better than most of the other sides we have dispatched on Wearside this term, and we must believe that this will be the result to consign a minor blip to the infinite catalogue of mid-season wobbles endured by sides who never end up needing to recall them.
And with any luck, this will be the final chapter of Sunderland and Portsmouth’s somewhat tumultuous cohabitation in the doldrums.