When Sunderland kick off against West Bromwich Albion tonight, it’s a good bet that they’ll be backed by another stellar and expectant crowd, despite the awkward Monday evening scheduling and the predicted sub-zero temperatures.
The issue of games being moved to suit the needs of broadcasters might be divisive, but after getting next to no exposure during the League One years it’s good to see our matches being regularly televised on Sky Sports once again.
On the pitch, tonight’s a great chance to continue to establish ourselves in the upper reaches of the table and to build on the momentum generated by consecutive victories over Birmingham and Millwall.
Such is the congested nature of the table and the unpredictability of form that we can certainly make some real headway during this period, and continue to defy the tradition of newly-promoted teams struggling to make an impact.
After four years of turmoil, rancour and bitterness, we ought to be making the fortnightly trip to the Stadium of Light with positivity, rather than trepidation.
Yes, the atmosphere can be indifferent at times, but if we can’t embrace the situation in which we find ourselves and fully buy into what’s taking place, when can we?
With a squad of players bound by a strong team spirit and a coach in Tony Mowbray who’s shown ample faith in them, this is the most capable and likeable Sunderland squad we’ve had in years. Perhaps most exciting of all, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s so much more to come from them.
Ellis Simms is beginning to find his form again; Amad is embracing the challenge of leading the attack, and with the imperious Danny Batth marshalling the defence we’re starting to look as reliable at the back as we have for a long time.
It goes without saying that injuries bit hard during the autumn, forcing us into a multitude of reshuffles and leading to worries about potential struggle, but the picture is now looking much more positive.
For example, where does a fully-fit Dan Ballard slot back into this team, give the impressive partnership forged between Batth and Luke O’Nien? Tonight may well see Ross Stewart make his comeback, but who drops out for him in the longer-term?
Much was made of our squad depth during the early weeks of the season, but from worrying about whether Mowbray could turn to his bench without a drop in quality, the opposite is now true, and some very talented footballers will be fighting for their places before long.
Moreover, we’re also playing a style of football that is a world away from the kind of stodgy and one-dimensional stuff that defined us for years.
Watching Sunderland games is no longer a chore, and as we saw in the second half against Millwall, our game management is improving, which hints at lessons learned from some harsh results earlier in the season.
Granted, we aren’t the most physically dominant team (an area of weakness that should be addressed in January) but when on form we’re a match for any footballing side in this division.
There’s no doubt at all that 2022 has represented a year of major progress for the club, albeit with room for improvement in certain areas. Potential moves such as rehousing the away supporters are positives and a sign that fan engagement is slowly improving.
From beginning the year with a 6-0 hammering away at Bolton to being within touching distance of the Championship playoffs as we approach the end of it, the rate of progress has been impressive.
Mowbray might not be to everyone’s taste, but stability and calmness, two things that are much needed for a club in our position, are qualities that he epitomises, and he’s done a more than solid job so far.
During the lowest moments of the League One years, it seemed like a forlorn hope that we could be run like a respectable, professional outfit once again, let alone be talking about a potential Championship playoff tilt.
That we’re doing just that shows how much good work has been done. The road ahead will be long, but with every victory and positive performance, Sunderland AFC takes another step towards the future that we all want to be a part of.