Whichever way you look at it, the start of Sunderland’s 2022/2023 Championship season has exceeded our expectations.
During the summer, we might have dreamed about the team storming the division and delivering a second promotion in as many seasons, but realistically, I think that we were all hoping that the side would simply be competitive during a season where consolidation in the second tier is the aim.
The first half of Saturday’s game against Stoke City was most arguably the poorest we have played in the league this season. However, we defended well, kept our heads in the face of some erratic refereeing decisions, and took the chance we had with clinical efficiency to end the first half one goal up.
The second half highlighted that we have a manager who is tactically aware, and who is willing to make the changes needed to see the game out. As a result, we were a far better team during the second forty five minutes.
We left the Potteries with three points in the bag, but the coming week will provide a real indication of where we stand.
What I have always liked about Alex Neil’s approach is that at no stage during his time on Wearside can he be accused of getting carried away or being overly negative. He accepts victories or defeats stoically, and regardless of the result, it is simply a case of ‘on to the next game’.
Therefore, his positivity at the press conference prior to Saturday’s game, when asked about our transfer situation, was as heartening as it was unexpected.
During this window, a variety of players have been linked with the club, but Neil clearly expects that new faces will be arriving this week. Commentators have been talking about the need for four or five players, but it may well be that Kristjaan Speakman and Neil will be happy with three, if at least two of them have the ability to provide cover in multiple positions.
Neil has warned that our transfer business likely will go down to the wire, and we can only hope that this is because the club are looking to persuade clubs to sell or loan players they do not want to lose.
So far, Sunderland's transfer business has to be viewed as successful, despite Daniel Ballard’s injury, and I get the feeling that the players who have arrived and have yet to get a great deal of game time will certainly prove their worth as the season continues.
On the pitch, we will welcome Dean Smith’s Norwich City to the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
Last week’s trip to Sheffield United was a decent test, and one that we were passing before Dan Neil’s dismissal. However, after a slow start, Norwich are hitting some form. We know that they have regularly had a promotion-relegation relationship with the Championship and the Premier League, and in ex-Aston Villa and Brentford boss Smith, they have a decent manager.
I think this game will be a litmus test of our ambitions for this season, and I’m confident that we will give a good account of ourselves. With quality additions to the squad and a good performance on the pitch, we may even see Alex Neil crack a smile on Saturday!