Dare we believe this is the season that, finally, Sunderland extricate themselves from the lower depths of the Football League?
Sunderland’s own version of Jules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, a tale of adventurers plunging into the abyss, could be close to morphing into ‘From the Earth to the Moon’! Second in League One, albeit having played three, and potentially, five more matches than Wigan, as they plunge headlong into 2022, the signs are certainly good. Wigan have to play those five matches with the pressure on them and not Sunderland. Sunderland know only too well how that pressure can become very much a negative.
The old adage of having the points in the bag is a good adage.
The recent form of Ross Stewart, Alex Pritchard, Elliott Embleton, Lynden Gooch, Dan Neil (and the list goes on, to Flanagan and Wright who have formed a double act as potent as Flanagan and Allen) is exciting to watch, and as exciting to anticipate as we hit the business end of the season.
Now Trai Hume has been added to the ‘project’ and I’ve read nothing but good things about the 19-year-old. Lee Johnson was at pains to point out the due diligence done on Hume extending to zoom calls, getting to know his family, his background, his character, leaving no stone unturned.
Some weeks ago, interviewing Tom Flanagan I went boldly into the supposition that Sunderland, unlike Hull and Peterborough last season between January and May, would not lose five more matches. I suggested they may lose one or two but I’m struggling to believe they will lose as many as five.
Flanagan agreed there would be a match where the opposition score and then sit in to go on and win. Rotherham slipped up at Accrington. Ironically as did Hull last January. Peterborough lost at Shrewsbury and home to Gillingham. Those sort of results happen.
The manner though in which Sunderland have responded to injuries and having a smaller squad from which to select has been remarkable. Aiden McGeady has been forgotten, and it seems Luke O’Nien is not far behind, but both players will be available for the run-in and what a tonic that is.
That’s without any more incomings, though it would appear there will be one or two more new faces to bolster the squad.
Even looking back at the lean spell at the end of October and the beginning of November, it seems with hindsight the frenzied response to the defeats by Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday were apocalyptic, when in reality they were just blips at a time when players form had dipped and the efforts expended at Loftus Road were a significant contributory factor.
Sunderland are now keeping clean sheets.
They press with confidence and guile, and players like Bailey Wright and Tom Flanagan are like new signings. Carl Winchester’s absence has been masked by the quiet authority of Corry Evans, but Evans has proved Sunderland can handle the setbacks of injuries. What a statement against Sheffield Wednesday in the absence of Nathan Broadhead (who, don’t get me wrong, is a huge miss) from Ross Stewart, who once again looks lithe and sharp.
Hopefully, January will see some cover signed in the unwanted scenario of an injury to Stewart and others. Alex Pritchard springs to mind. Kristjaan Speakman understandably played his cards close to his chest regarding the window, only saying the club would be disciplined and composed in their transfer business and that the ‘ownership’ would look favourably on any potential business that would improve the squad.
Trai Hume appears to be a good start.
You may be able to tell I’m in a positive mood. I honestly see few reasons not to be. Covid of course hangs over all of us again, but thankfully the temptation to once again go behind closed doors and usher in a haunting sense of foreboding has been resisted.
We should be able, with some confidence, be able to say the season will be seen out, and even in the worst-case scenario of points per game were there for any reason another abrupt cessation, Sunderland are well placed.
There is ‘noise’ around the ‘ownership’ and rightly so, but to me, with the club currently in the position it is in the League table, it is a sideshow. The continued recruitment behind the scenes - Sam Ash, the new Head of Football Administration and Operations is just one such example - is evidence of the club rebuilding its infrastructure and the ‘philosophy’ in terms of player recruitment and its emphasis on youth has to be applauded.
I pray I’ve not now placed a hex on the rest of the season!
Happy New Year! Now more than ever, keep the faith.