With just under five minutes of normal time left at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon, this opening-season round-up could have been marginally different.
But, still, Sunderland’s league unbeaten run remains intact, and the Black Cats have adapted to Championship life fairly well.
For a newly-promoted side, the expectation for this campaign wasn’t very high: yes, for a club of this stature, there always lies some expectation on the weight of our fans, but it’s certainly a case of so far, so good for Alex Neil’s men.
Five points from a possible nine, sixth in the league table, six goals in three matches, and many reasons to be optimistic have us all enjoying being back on the Championship train.
Of course, it’s not going to be smooth sailing between now and May (albeit with a short stop in the four weeks for the World Cup), but the Black Cats have set off with full steam ahead.
Yes, there may be some pessimists out there who look at our three league matches, and argue that we should have gained maximum points: possibly we should have if we avoided Viktor Gyokeres’ 84th-minute strike on the opening day and that simply unforgettable Seny Dieng header at the weekend.
But, within the context of our last four/five years and the history of newly-promoted sides and the Championship, itself, personally, it’s hard to not be happy with the start that we’ve made.
And for me, most importantly is the fact that we remain unbeaten in the opening three matches. In the Championship, momentum is absolutely everything, so having that on board for us is crucial in the early weeks of the season because after all, we’re still learning in this division.
Within the opening three games, on paper, it’s been two difficult, secure Championship sides come to the Stadium of Light, and for large parts, we’ve matched them, almost toe-for-toe.
Like many fans, I’ve been impressed with the overall composure of the performances, from front to back, there’s no getting carried away at the moment, and in truth, it’s been reflected in the displays on the pitch.
Specifically, Sunderland’s first-half performances on home turf have been nothing short of wonderful and a joy to watch. The intensity, press, composure, and ruthlessness are all on display, but it’s after the half-time interval where we seem to take our foot off the gas.
On Saturday, a two-goal lead probably should have been good enough to seal the three points, after the two goals from our new ‘SAS’ – Simms and Stewart.
Yet, in this division, quality is absolutely everything. We’ve seen it in all of our three opening matches: Gyokeres was Coventry’s star man on the opening day and netted a stunning equaliser, Andy Weimann and Alex Scott pulled the strings for Bristol City last week, while QPR’s Illias Chair and Tyler Roberts seemed to prove decisive in turning the match around at the weekend.
Sunderland are still adapting to life back in the Championship, and we do have qualities of our own, but in the opening encounters, the Black Cats need to stay switched on over the 90 minutes. It’s remarkable that QPR’s goalkeeper, Seny Dieng, was able to rise highest and somehow loop his header over Patterson in the 92nd minute.
For all that that moment on Saturday was devastating (it still feels like a defeat, even now), what it did do was produce our first real Championship learning curve, and I’m sure Alex Neil will use it to the benefit of his squad, with big matches going forward.
Sheffield United is arguably the Black Cats’ first tough test of the campaign: Bramall Lane isn’t an easy place to go and with Paul Heckingbottom’s side one of the favourites for the play-offs and promotion this campaign, it’s probably a good indicator of where we are at the moment.
Stoke, Norwich, and Rotherham will complete our first month of Championship life, and after then, we’ll truly know how this side is fairing.
But, after three matches, it’s a case of so far, so good for Alex Neil’s side.