It has been an excellent weekend for everyone connected with Sunderland AFC.
With victories for our under-18s, under-21s, and the first team, plus a draw for the Lasses at Durham, the players and staff can be very proud of their efforts, and rightly so.
During the past nine days we’ve seen the good, the gritty, and the downright infuriating sides of Alex Neil’s team as the new Championship season begins to take shape and teams settle down for the marathon that awaits them over the next nine months.
The concession of two late goals at home against QPR - having played so well for two-thirds of the game - was frustrating, but the pride and endeavour we showed in defeat against Sheffield United in midweek was telling.
Competing as well as we did against an established Championship side was highly encouraging, and even as we slipped to defeat, there were no signs of the players giving up the fight or letting their heads drop.
Saturday’s hard-fought victory over Stoke City served as the final proof, if any were needed, that Sunderland circa 2022 are an altogether more organised and resilient outfit than our ultimately doomed team of 2017/2018 - a squad that was riddled with misfits and mercenaries.
In those dark days morale was on the floor, belief was minimal, and the club was barely a shell- merely existing, rather than competing. Thankfully this is a new era, and although there are bound to be dips and setbacks along the way, everything points to gradual progression - and eight points from our first five league fixtures represents an impressive return.
Slowly but surely, with every positive performance and result we pick up, the club is beginning to edge forward once again.
Last week, an acknowledgment that off-field standards have not been met - in terms of customer service and fan engagement - was a positive first step, but on the football side of things the picture is far brighter.
With a squad of young, dynamic and fast-improving players - perhaps embodied against Stoke by the supremely impressive Dennis Cirkin - and a manager who fits the Stadium of Light hotseat as if it was customised for him, belief is rising again.
With just over a week left in the transfer window, Neil struck an upbeat tone when asked about potential incomings, and with the likes of Brighton’s Jan Paul van Hecke strongly linked with a move, it feels as though the head coach will have the resources he needs to guide the club through this season.
On the subject of the manager, his role at the heart of our transformation cannot be understated.
Since he arrived at the club, Neil has imbued the players with a ferocious competitive spirit and a will to win that had sadly been lacking in Sunderland teams of recent years.
We are no longer a soft touch, and even though our performance was not as fluid as it might have been against the Potters, those qualities came to the fore as we sealed a crucial early-season win.
Not only does the former Hamilton and Norwich boss clearly see the potential of this football club, but he’s a man on a mission to unlock it as quickly as possible. In some ways, it is identical to the attitude that Roy Keane embodied when he arrived back in 2006.
From the moment he swept into the club, Keane seemed to say, ‘I’m taking this club back to the Premier League, so if you want to join me, get on board, and we’ll make it happen together’.
Neil’s ethos is uncannily similar, and if he is backed and is given time, this man could certainly lead us back to the top flight.
The legendary NFL coach Bum Phillips, formerly of the Houston Oilers, had a saying: ‘Respect all, fear none’, and that is the exact same mindset that Neil has adopted. He knows this league well, and understands what is required to be competitive in it, but he is not afraid of the challenges it will pose.
Indeed, his post-match interview at Bramall Lane was that of a man utterly in control, and not fazed in the slightest by what had happened.
As he spoke after the game, there was no panic, and no resorting to cliches. Instead, he offered a calm and rational analysis of the game, and highlighted areas in which we could have been better.
What also caught the attention was the fact that he didn’t publicly lambast Dan Neil, either.
Instead, he praised the midfielder’s influence until his red card and highlighted that he needed to learn from it. It was smart, diplomatic management, and it summed up the approach of the most capable manager to occupy the Stadium of Light dugout since Sam Allardyce.
Saturday’s visit of Norwich to the Stadium of Light is sure to be another exciting occasion.
The addition of one or two new players ahead of the game would provide a timely boost, but we can approach the match with positivity and the knowledge that, regardless of the result, we are in safe hands, and ready for whatever challenges are thrown our way.