If Ross Stewart’s comeback goal against Hull on Saturday gave the ‘Loch Ness Drogba’ a little more leverage in his contract negotiations (in theory, anyway), perhaps the fact that he marked his return with a goal of real quality was a microcosm of our season so far.
The game against Hull was a suitably crazy way for Sunderland to reach the halfway mark of the Championship season, and the end result- probably a fair one- did at least show that we can dig in when needed, even if one point could’ve been three with a little more composure.
The concession of a penalty that was subsequently missed, a red card for Elliot Embleton, Stewart’s moment of glory and then a frustrating equaliser all added up to a game that was difficult to draw any firm conclusions from.
Stewart’s return was welcome, but the departures of Alex Pritchard and Danny Batth were another blow, and Embleton suffering what looked like a severe leg injury was disheartening, too. On the upside, Patrick Roberts added an injection of quality when he entered the fray, and perhaps he’ll now get an extended run in the side.
And so, as we take a breather before welcoming Blackburn to the Stadium of Light on Boxing Day, how do we assess our season so far?
At first glance, twelfth position in the table doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, but with a gap of a mere three points to the playoffs and the league as open and unpredictable as it’s been for a long time, the picture is certainly encouraging.
It’s fair to say that one person’s mediocrity is another’s stability, but it’s been made clear by the club hierarchy that 2022/2023 is being viewed as a season of consolidation, of putting foundations in place that’ll eventually help us to mount a promotion challenge.
Admittedly, Tony Mowbray may not be the man to deliver that, but if he can help to lay the foundations for his eventual successor, he’ll have fulfilled the role he was brought here to do.
It’s obvious that the future of the club won’t be risked in order to chase the Premier League riches, and despite the demands to ‘show some ambition’, it seems certain that January will be about fine-tuning and refinement, instead of wholesale changes.
It’s a perfectly sensible way of going about things, and although there may be a desire from some fans to embark on a fast-track route to the top flight, a slow build, with a developing squad and a growing sense of what can be achieved, feels like the right method for us at this moment.
It’s impossible to deny that there have been frustrations along the way as we’ve made our return to the second tier, most notably when points have been dropped through carelessness and poor game management.
There have been plenty of gut punches, particularly at home, as the likes of QPR, Burnley and Cardiff have cashed in on our nagging inability to see games out, but against the likes of Reading and Bristol City, we’ve also shown exactly what we can do in an attacking sense.
In terms of individual players, 2022/2023 has panned out extremely well for some of the lads, whereas others still have work to do. Pre-season, the fear was that some of them would be exposed at this level, and it’s been a real positive to see many of them making the step up.
The likes of Batth, Stewart, Jack Clarke and Amad have all shone, Corry Evans has led the team with aplomb, and Luke O’Nien’s versatility has been a real asset, too.
On the other hand, the likes of Dan Neil and Ellis Simms have found consistency hard to come by, Abdoullah Ba is yet to be fully unleashed, and Edouard Michut has seldom had a chance to impress. Lowering the average age of the squad so drastically is a double-edged sword, but have they looked overawed or out of their depth? I don’t think so.
Our first Championship campaign since the disgrace of 2017/2018 has been far more enjoyable, and the fact that there’s scope for improvement is something that should offer encouragement to everyone. We’re no longer a basket case of a football club, and after years of poor management at every level, that’s a relief.
Overall? I’d say ‘7/10, good effort, but plenty of hard work still to come’, and for now, that’s more than good enough.