I want a group of players full of desire, team spirit and a never-say-die attitude - that’s the very least that we should expect from a Sunderland player.
Those were the admirable sentiments expressed by Simon Grayson when he took charge of Sunderland in June 2017, following the harrowing end to the previous campaign that had seen David ‘That’s What I Do, I Win’ Moyes, guide the club into the Championship in utterly disgraceful fashion.
Sadly, one year, two managers, and a mere seven league victories later, things had gone from bad to worse.
Grayson came and went, and Chris Coleman came in to replace him, but going from coaching Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey to the likes of Marc Wilson, Darron Gibson, and Lee Camp was a futile exercise, as they all played a part in the club’s downfall.
Fast forward four years, however, and the landscape has changed significantly, and entirely for the better.
We’ve already equalled our meagre win tally from the 2017/2018 campaign after twenty matches, the playoffs are a mere four points away, and some of the football, played by a group of wholehearted and likeable players, has been sparkling.
Both on the field and off it, Sunderland AFC is in far a better state of health now than it once was.
Where pessimism once reigned, optimism and excitement has taken its place, and hopes of a brighter future are now borne out of genuine belief rather than a vague hope that someday, everything would somehow fall back into place. No longer are games occasions to be feared, because at our best, we know we can compete with any team in this league.
It’s taken a lot of hard work, and we’ve had to endure a number of embarrassments and setbacks along the way. Stewart Donald took the reins, Netflix had their day, and Wembley kicked us where it hurts. Ross, Parkinson, Johnson and Neil were the men tasked with ending the third-tier misery, but that’s all in the past, and not before time.
This isn’t to say that those currently running the club have every angle covered or have fixed every lingering issue.
Stadium renovations and spectator safety do need to be addressed, and customer service standards need to be raised, but overall? It would be nigh on impossible to argue that they have not implemented the changes that were needed.
Frankly, this is where the balance of popularity versus efficiency, in Kristjaan Speakman’s case and to a certain extent, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, needs to be tilted in favour of the latter.
For years, I was desperate for the club to be simply run efficiently and professionally, and for us to no longer be the butt of all kinds of jokes. At the moment, I’d say that box has been ticked emphatically.
In order to fully illustrate the scale of progress since that grim 2017/2018 season, compare the following starting XIs, the first of which was the team we fielded against Middlesbrough in November 2017; the second being the team who started against Birmingham on Friday night.
Stark, isn’t it? And that’s before you factor in the players we are currently missing through injury, all of whom will add significant quality to the team when they return.
We are now able to choose from group of players who are fully committed and completely in tune with the club’s ethos. Academy-bred players including Anthony Patterson and Dan Neil have come to the fore, and true diamonds have been unearthed in Ross Stewart and Dennis Cirkin.
Instead of cobbling together a team comprised of over-the-hill castoffs from other teams and mercenaries who saw Sunderland as an easy payday, we’ve taken the path that should’ve been taken long ago- faith in youth, pathways from the academy, and an ethos that rewards players for showing the right kind of attitude.
Five years ago, the club was being run like a ship with no captain.
Ellis Short was slowly but surely beginning the process of checking out, and nobody seemed to be taking charge and at least trying to show some leadership. In contrast, there is now structure and competency at most levels, which in turn has filtered down onto the pitch.
There is unlikely to ever be a genuine consensus about what’s best for the club, so strong are the multitude of opinions about what should or shouldn’t be done, but a little bit of reflection on the past five years does bring everything back into focus.
We hit rock bottom, we scraped along for four painful years, and now the trajectory has finally changed. Are we the finished article? Absolutely not. Are we heading in the right direction. Absolutely, and for now, that suits me just fine.