I must admit, I was in two minds as to whether it was the right call to play our game against Millwall on Saturday. The fixture had been postponed after the Queen died, as had every other fixture in the championship, but we were the only club to elect to play during the World Cup break.
Would we have benefited from more time on the training field, rather than crowbarring this fixture in unnecessarily?
Would we be better off waiting till later in the season when Stewart and Ballard would definitely be fit?
Should we have waited until our World Cup players - Bailey Wright and Jewison Bennette - we’re back in the ranks?
After all, we saw last season the impact of playing a couple of games we didn’t have to (Wycombe and Lincoln) had on the season – and Lee Johnson’s career as Sunderland boss.
On the other hand, though, we’ve seen before the impact of postponing games and not playing fixtures when we could.
In League One, we always postponed games when we could - rather than when we should.
There were a few times when we had a handful of international call ups and decided to call games off - usually because Jon McLaughlin wasn’t available.
That came back to bite us on the arse massively - Jack Ross lost his job and we missed out on promotion because of the post-Wembley fixture pile-up that came as a result of us not fulfilling those fixtures or scheduling them earlier in the season.
Fortunately, the decision to play Saturday’s game paid off in spades - although it didn’t look as though it might in a first half in which we looked slow, a little off the pace and a bit confused by the formation we were asked to play.
Second half, we were on our usual game and did tremendously well – running out deserved winners – even though the score line was flattering.
Playing the game could end up being a decision that has a far greater impact than the three points we added to our seasonal total, too.
For one, it’s a massive boost to our home record, and will hopefully go some way to kickstarting a better string of results at the Stadium of Light. Before Saturday, we’d played nine at home, winning just two – against Rotherham and Wigan, the other two sides who came up from League One with us last season.
If someone had told me before the season kicked off that it would be December before we registered a home win against a team that was in the Championship or Premier League the season before I’d have been genuinely fearing the worst. It sounds very Grayson/Coleman esque – but our away form has meant it hasn’t had as negative an impact as it could have had.
Still, if we’ve got aspirations of doing anything this season, our home form needs to improve dramatically – and after weathering the first half storm, we got those valuable three points – and three goals too.
And therein lies another positive – because in our previous nine games at home, we’d registered just 10 goals – five of them coming in those wins against Rotherham and Wigan.
Five goals in seven games against sides in the Championship or Premier League last season is another concerning stat but, with Ellis Simms fully fit, Amad in sparkling form and Ross Stewart on the comeback trail too, a consistent lack of goals is something we can hopefully consign to history.
Playing on Saturday, too, gave us a good break but not a ridiculously long one. Three weeks is a long break at this stage of the season. Four weeks and it’s almost as if you’re back into pre-season. It could work out very well for us to have played that game, from a fitness and form point of view, as well as the confidence a win naturally brings.
First half, we seemed rusty after 22 days without a game. It remains to be seen what impact four weeks of no action will have on the other clubs.
The win on Saturday was important for Tony Mowbray, too. He’s been dealt a pretty rough hand since he took over, with Stewart, Simms and Ballard all sidelined for much of his tenure. But he’s maintained a positivity about the place, got some good results and has us nicely mid-table, just one point off the play offs.
He’ll be breathing a sigh of relief we got those three points on Saturday. His squad’s looking stronger than it has done since he was appointed, and January’s around the corner, too.
We’ve got a run of games into the New Year that, on paper, we could do well in – home games against West Brom and Blackburn, plus trips to Hull, Wigan and Blackpool, are all fixtures we could get something from.
Of course, there’s a few things we need to get better at – set pieces in particular were as disappointing on Saturday as they have been all season.
But I think, in a perverse way, that’s the really encouraging thing right now. We’re doing well, but there are still huge areas of potential improvement.
They include the development of the players we have got at the club. We’ve seen from Amad the upturn in form he’s enjoyed when given a run of games. What will Michut, Ba and Bennette offer given the same chance?
And then there’s the return to fitness of Stewart and Ballard, and the new recruits we’ll hopefully add in January. Life as a Sunderland supporter is pretty damn good at the moment.
It would have been an easier call to kick the Millwall game into 2023 and worry about it then.
But we didn’t. We were bold in that respect, and we got our reward.
And that reward could compound over the coming weeks and months.