If we rewind to the days leading up to the season opener against Coventry, after an up-and-down pre-season campaign had ended with a draw against Hartlepool, perhaps the idea of Sunderland harvesting five points from their first three league fixtures would have been considered a more-than-acceptable outcome.
Amid all the questions about the relative strength of the squad, as well as its youthful and inexperienced profile, the first three Championship games have demonstrated the good and bad elements of Alex Neil’s side.
Admittedly, the one outlier was the limp exit from the League Cup at the hands of Sheffield Wednesday, but if any game screamed ‘we are focusing on the league, and this competition isn’t important’, it was that one. Success will be judged by league results in 2022/2023, and Neil’s decision to rotate heavily at Hillsborough wasn’t a surprise.
However, as the dust settles on Saturday’s undeniably thrilling, if gut-wrenching draw against QPR, it is perhaps a mark of raised ambitions and higher standards that we are disappointed at the points that have been dropped so far, and certainly the manner in which they have been conceded.
Had we been more ruthless against Coventry and against Michael Beale’s team, we would be sitting on nine points from nine, and the picture would be altogether more upbeat. As it is, we must settle for a good start, as opposed to an excellent one.
At 2-0 up against the Hoops on Saturday, the message needed to be, ‘No mistakes, lads. Let’s be disciplined and patient, and see the game out’. It was the moment where composure was paramount and the older heads in the team needed to keep their younger colleagues focused on the task at hand.
As it was, a touch of over-exuberance from Dan Neil and Lynden Gooch, who combined to bring a QPR counter-attack to a halt some twenty yards further up the field than they might have done, led to a free-kick which led to a goal - and from there, the entire game changed.
Minutes later, an all-too-familiar story reached a familiarly sickening conclusion when Seni Dieng headed in the equaliser. At the time, a fan sitting next to me said that he felt the goal had been coming, such was the increasingly edgy nature of our second half performance.
Taken in isolation, this was by no means a ‘bad’ result, and had the roles been reversed we would’ve doubtless been thrilled to escape with a draw from a game in which we had been second-best for the majority of it. As a matter of fact, this fixture has thrown up similar finishes before.
At Loftus Road back in early 1999, with almost the final kick of the game, Michael Bridges dug out a cross that was headed home by Niall Quinn for a crucial point, leaving Sunderland elated and QPR gutted. This time, it was far more of a freak equalising goal, but we know that feeling all too well.
Indeed, the way we turned things around against Bristol City last weekend was neatly symmetrical to this game. Such painful results will doubtless be inflicted by us on others this season, but it seems certain that we will have to take a few stinging results of our own as the campaign unfolds.
There is no doubt that the Championship is a ruthless division, and periods of hesitancy will be punished to a greater degree than would be the case in League One. Defences here are tougher, and midfields are certainly more savvy. Okay, we got very little from the referee on Saturday, but we need to do everything we can to ensure that the officials’ influence on the outcome of a game is minimal.
If Sunderland are to make an impact this season, they need to learn how to control the dynamic of a game when the momentum is on our side and the game is heading towards its conclusion, but to also figure out a way of regaining control when things are going against them. It is where players like Corry Evans and Danny Batth, who are both blessed with ample experience in this league, can really come to the fore.
We all know the tricks of the trade that work well: stealing a couple of yards on a throw-in, making a tactical foul at a key moment, and knowing when to push up and when to drop deep. If we can master them and add some cunning to our game (as well as some more physical strength in midfield), we will become much more of an all-round team.
I have no doubt that Alex Neil will be reinforcing the point about being streetwise to his players at every given opportunity.
We do have the skill and the creativity to hold our own in this division, but without that little bit of devil that all good teams possess, we might find ourselves prone to conceding silly goals and losing control of games, with major consequences.
It can be rectified, and it seems certain that, with time, and as the players settle into this league, it will be.