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Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship

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Editorial: The pressure is off - but is the sky the limit for Sunderland this season?

Going into this season expectations were set pretty low for Sunderland, but it looks like we’re a lot better than most people thought we’d be. How far can we actually go?

Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Apologies, everyone - I know the editorial column is usually out on a Monday morning, but I had overdosed on Pigs in Blankets by that point and needed a lie down. But fear not, we are here, and what exciting things we have to talk about this week...

Be honest - you didn’t really expect Sunderland to be as good as this in the Championship, did you?

Even me, the happiest of clappers, would have struggled to make a case for The Lads playing with this amount of freedom in a higher league, showing off a brand of football that’s more prime Barca than it is traditional Sunderland - but here we are, sat comfortably in the second tier wondering how much further we can shoot up the table, rather than drop back down.

And I know that makes some of you nervous - I speak every day to other Sunderland supporters who are more than just a little anxious about the possibility of a promotion push in the second half of the season. Not because they don’t think we’re capable, but because we might not necessarily be ready for what comes after it.

This is Sunlun after all, and we never do anything the easy way. It’s either the highest of highs or the lowest of lows with this football club - there’s no in-between.

We signed players last season with the Championship in mind, and I guess that’s why we’re thriving and the likes of Wigan and Rotherham are barely surviving. Players who weren’t ready three or four windows ago now are, and it’s a constant process of improvement - the fact we don’t actually know how good some of these players could potentially be means we’re perpetually guessing our own fate. It’s daunting to some, but for me it’s exciting.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Lads like Ross Stewart and Dennis Cirkin have been linked with moves to higher leagues, and I’m sure privately there are many others that are tickling the tastebuds of clubs in the Premier League and beyond. We have some very good players who could become even better, and being able to watch that development play out in front of us has made for a thoroughly entertaining season so far.

What exactly is our ceiling, then? Are we actually punching above our weight slightly right now? Or, with better players now available, could we be even better again? Will we tighten things up in January and add quality to the squad? Is there anything to fear in the Championship? Will the teams around us improve at the rate we are, or will we start to break away from them and show ourselves as a real force in the division?

We’re only guessing, of course. Had Ellis Simms not scored that last minute winner on Boxing Day I’d probably have a very different - more mellow - outlook on things.

Right now I’m feeling like we can do anything we want to do if our mentality is right. The quality of the football is there already. We have one of the best strikers in the league. We have a tight defence. If we can defend better and become more consistent - just small improvements - we could be in a strong position by the time May rolls around.

I’ve seen nothing to fear from the teams we’ve faced this season in the Championship. Even the sides at the top - we outplayed Burnley for 45 minutes, we were the better side with ten men against Sheff Utd, and we just beat Blackburn.

Sunderland v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Lee Parker - CameraSport via Getty Images

I think that’s actually scaring some fans, because the plan was never supposed to be fast-tracked. This was supposed to be a process, with loads of small improvements built up over a number of years.

I’m not getting ahead of myself and I think the debate over whether or not we’re ready this soon for a return to the Premier League is probably best left for another day, but the fact I’m even thinking about the possibility shows how good this current team is.

If things drop off from here, I won’t be too disappointed. I’d probably have taken a 21st place finish if you had offered it to me on the way out of Wembley in May, so anything better than that is a bonus. That complete lack of pressure has provided us with an environment to thrive, and whilst the voices in the ground and on social media can occasionally be noisy and frustrated, I don’t believe this translates to the pitch. The players are together, they all know each other’s role in the side well, and there are no big egos at play.

Is the sky the limit? I don’t know... but deep down, in my heart, I think we are as capable as anyone of mounting a playoff challenge in the second half of the season.

Scary yes, but not completely daunting.

This is Sunderland after all, and we don’t do things the easy way.


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