Frustration but not deflation; optimism and realism, and a very solid foundation on which we can build our challenge for this season.
Sunderland’s first Championship game since 2018 might have ended with something of a sting in the tail as Mark Robins’ side grabbed a thoroughly deserved equaliser.
As an exercise in handling big occasions, testing yourself against a higher class of opponent and a chance for Alex Neil to see how his men are responding to his methods, this was not only a positive result - it was also a thoroughly worthwhile ninety minutes.
Neil is both a realist and an optimist, as we have heard during the past week. He sees the potential of this club and is clearly highly motivated to unlock it but he also understands the perils of the Championship, and that the road back to the Premier League will be arduous.
That is absolutely the right mindset, and he continues to impress with his leadership.
Pre-match, one narrative that very nearly gained traction was that this squad was ‘only good enough for fifth in League One’, and that their relative youth and inexperience would be exposed by an admittedly streetwise and savvy Coventry side, similar to when Wigan arrived on Wearside last summer.
To that end, I was particularly curious as to how our young players would handle the occasion.
Would they rise to the challenge and use the considerable power of the crowd to their advantage, or would they be overawed and find themselves shrinking as the game passed them by?
Not a bit of it, because during the first half some of Sunderland’s play, propelled by a high-intensity press and outstanding work rate from each player, was superb.
The interplay between the likes of Alex Pritchard, Elliot Embleton and Lynden Gooch was fantastic to watch; Dan Neil was more than comfortable in midfield, and at the back, Daniel Ballard, partnered with Danny Batth in a surprise selection, looked like a dominant and confident figure at the heart of the defence.
After some promising early moves, Sunderland's first goal arrived eleven minutes in.
If anyone had ‘header from Jack Clarke’ on their bingo card for this game, someone was certainly winning the jackpot. As unlikely a goal as he will ever score, a raking pass from Pritchard found Gooch, who dug out a teasing cross that was buried by the former Leeds winger. Cue elation in the stadium, and among the Sunderland players.
Coventry were always a threat, however, and a major warning shot was fired midway through the first half, when a rasping drive from Jonathan Panzo was tipped onto the bar by the outstanding Anthony Patterson.
Patterson might be another player over whom question marks may be hanging, but displays like this will do his cause and his confidence the power of good. He is our number one, and he deserves the backing of everyone.
The second half saw a major shift in the balance of play, as well as in the overall dynamic of the game.
Sunderland began to drop off, one or two errors began to creep in, and Coventry certainly raised their game. Suddenly, we were riding our luck, with a succession of clearances and silly fouls conceded, and it was here that perhaps a touch of inexperience and indecision began to show.
It wasn’t unexpected, but it is something that we must heed. Teams at this level will punish slackness, and we need to be aware of that at all times.
After eighty minutes, hope was growing that an opening-day victory was on the cards, but it wasn’t to be, as Viktor Gyökeres curled home a delicious effort from the edge of the box after slack marking. It was a fully-merited equaliser and over the course of the ninety minutes, a point apiece was a fair result.
Honours even, points shared, so what could we take away from this game?
Beyond any doubt, we have the core of a competitive Championship side, and additional signings made between now and the window will only enhance that. Under Alex Neil’s stewardship, this group of players is in capable hands, and I cannot think of a manager in recent times who has earned as much trust as the Scot.
The squad’s young players will improve with more game time, and the experienced heads ought to be able to guide them and ensure that they emerge from some inevitable dips in form.
Additions are certainly needed, and despite Corry Evans not exactly being outmuscled in this game, a dominating central midfielder should be high on the agenda. Cover at right and left-back, as well as another striker, is also needed, and there is no reason to believe that these signings will not be made over the next month.
An encouraging first step, and promising return to the second tier, but greater challenges await. After four years of often brutal slugfests, it was nice to actually watch a game of football this weekend, and if this is what we’ve got in store over the next nine months, this could be a very exciting season!