I know some of you probably read the headline and strapline of this article and tutted, rolled your eyes and thought “here we go again” - but you know what, sometimes I think we should be proud of who and what we are as a football club.
Pretty much all of you have lived through one of - actually, scratch that - THE darkest period in the history of this football club.
Not that you need me to remind you, but it must be pointed out that we avoided near-certain death on numerous occasions before eventually succumbing to Premier League relegation, and then the following year we did it again by dropping out of the Championship. We then spent four years in League One as Sunderland AFC found its feet again, regaining a small amount of pride on that great day in Wembley Stadium in May.
And over that four years we saw the club stripped back to the bone - though whether you agree with some of the decisions taken is probably up for debate, and that’s a chat we’ll leave for another day - but the end result was watching our team cruise to victory at the national stadium, playing a style of football we’ve craved for many years.
And to be honest, I never really thought we’d be able to transfer that style over to the Championship with as much ease as we’ve done, but we have. Not only does this team look capable of beating any team in this division on its day, but we have players who signed in the third tier who would comfortably walk into almost all of the other teams in the league.
You have to tip your hat to the power players behind the scenes who have overseen this transition, even if it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
Kristjaan Speakman’s appointment as Sporting Director certainly raised a few eyebrows, and I don’t believe that he’s got every decision right over his time, but there have been more hits than misses and you have to admit that the approach to pick a philosophy and stick to it has reaped rewards, even in these formative years under his guidance.
He doesn’t deserve all the credit, though. Appointed in the latter days of Stewart Donald’s chairmanship, the arrival of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus - a young, progressive-thinking owner with a very solid team of people around him behind the scenes - gave the club the fresh impetus it needed to kick on properly.
Lee Johnson left under a cloud but deserves far more credit for his role in things than he’s ever likely to get, and the foundations for the style of play we’re enjoying now were laid with him as the head of the table. He took over a side left behind by Phil Parkinson that played some of the worst football I’ve ever seen from a Sunderland side, and by the time he left we had a far different team on the pitch knocking the ball around on the deck as opposed to in the air.
Alex Neil tightened things up, and did whatever it took to get us promoted. We signed a handful of players who suited the style of play in January and that was enough to kick us on to promotion. Like Johnson, the way things ended probably cloud most people’s judgement of the man, and whilst I have my own thoughts and feelings on the way he left, he’ll always have my love and respect for being the man who eventually guided us out of the third tier.
Tony Mowbray came along and slotted in like he had always been there, but changed our style up slightly and reverted from the five-at-the-back system that had served Neil so well, and today sets his team up more in the fashion of his free-flowing Blackburn side - a four-man defence with full backs that get forward, an attacking trio that plays short, sharp passing football, and a forward who links everything together.
It’s not perfect and there have been some valid criticisms of Mowbray over recent months when it comes to the style of play, but on the whole I think most fans would agree that the football we’ve played this season is some of the best stuff we’ve seen here in many years.
You could have a goal of the season competition now just on the team goals we’ve scored alone. We’re gaining attention for our ability to play from back to front and be clinical in front of goal, and not many teams have been able to stop us - and that’s been without the availability of some of our best players.
National media outlets, opposition fans and curious onlookers up and down the land are seeing the way Sunderland play football and rejoicing in the pure brilliance of it. Social media was again buzzing after the Millwall game after a video emerged of the goal that Alex Pritchard scored, a move that began in defence and saw the ball touched by most of the team on the pitch before he stuck it away.
We’re making a name for ourselves just at the right time.
I have no doubt that the club’s recruitment team are already looking at players they can sign in January, both at home and abroad, and one of the big selling points has to be the way we play.
All footballers want to play for a team that does things properly - the modern era of the game has seen the rise of the academy system in which most elite clubs in England have looked to emulate the coaching strategy of some of the biggest sides in Europe. Pep Guardiola’s influence on football goes far beyond the clubs he’s managed himself, and players starting at the age of seven at Sunderland are taught to play ‘the right way’. Our U18s side top their division for a reason, and we have one of the youngest squads in the Championship.
This philosophy is only really in its infancy but it’s something we can present to potential recruits when the window opens. Not only are we playing good football, giving chances to young players and have a footballing hierarchy in place that gives assurances to players that when they come here they’ll get stability and a clear strategy on how to play, but we are backing that up with performances and, importantly, results in the Championship.
We have players in the first team now who we can point to as an example of why this is the best place to spend your playing career. The way we’ve raided the academies of top Premier League sides and revitalised the careers of several young players is a big tick in the box, as is the way we’ve handed opportunities to the best youngsters from our own academy.
This all makes me very excited for January.
Given the amount of challenges we’ve had thrown at us this season alone - injuries to several top performers and the departure of a manager the biggest two that spring to mind - the fact we sit just one point outside the playoffs is remarkable.
We’ve achieved that with a weakened squad and with some good players returning, a transfer window which affords us the chance to tighten up the squad and further improve it, and a solid playing style that is there for everyone to see, I think there’s a real chance that this team can push the top six.
There, I said it.
I might end up with egg on my face and if I’m wrong feel free to point this out at a later date, but nothing I’ve seen from the other sides in the league this season suggests that Sunderland have less of a chance of doing it than anyone else.
But, and I say this with a straight face, I won’t get too carried away.
Small steps are what is needed - I’m just very proud of this team and the way we’ve carried ourselves in the Championship, and think we can be capable of so much more if we allow ourselves to believe and the team off the pitch do what they’ve done for a few years now, and continue to get big decisions right as the season plays out.