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Stoke City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Are Sunderland flourishing without the weight of expectation?

The expectation to succeed in League One became a heavy burden for the players and fans, but a lack of expectation could propel us on this season.

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Well, this is a bit different, isn’t it?

Throwing a two-goal lead away and losing in the space of four days, for instance, would over the last four years especially, have ended in an “end of days” style reaction in the stands and on the socials.

But, times have changed and the side received a fair amount of praise for the two performances that only yielded one point from six, and it’s lifting the pressure placed on the players compared to recent years.

After a quick glance, this could be the first season since 2012-13, following our final position of 13th in the Premier League, since we felt a sense of perspective regarding results. Since that season, every game has been riddled with the burden, and importance, of collecting points where failure to do so could potentially have drastic consequences.

For the five seasons between August 2012 and May 2017, it was a constant battle to stay in the Premier League. Every game felt like a cup final, especially in the final stretch of the season and let’s face it, our expectation that we would be participating in these dogfights became tiring.

David Moyes broke the cycle of fighting for survival... by simply giving up.
Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Then came our season in the Championship where we expected to, at the very least, be competitive and challenge in the top half of the table. There was an expectation that Simon Grayson to begin with, along with many of the players just could not handle. Every defeat was a kick to the stomach as we contemplated a second stint in the third tier in the club's history.

The four years that have followed in League One have felt like a lifetime. Every game felt like it had added significance on multiple fronts. For a start, we were in League One, and even though we all agree we fully deserved to be there, we also felt that we should be beating the majority of the sides who we came up against. This was partly down to the fact that we’re just not used to taking on these teams in league competition.

As a result of this, every draw with Fleetwood Town or defeat to Plymouth Argyle felt like the end of the world, because we felt we simply shouldn’t be in a position to be playing in these fixtures and because it felt like the chances of getting back to the Championship was slipping through our fingers with every point dropped.

All of this has meant the club has been shrouded in a fog of burden and expectation for too many years. It’s been felt on the pitch by the players and everyone in the stands watching on. You could sense it during games. The hush of the crowd if we went a goal down, or the groan when we would inevitably be pegged back to draw 1-1.

Sunderland v MK Dons - Sky Bet League 1
If it weren’t for those 1-1 draws, we might have been back a whole lot sooner...
Photo by Steven Hadlow/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This weight of expectation has hung around our neck for too long and it just needed to get out of the scenario we had become stuck in a loop with, which was that we had to get out of League One at any cost.

Now we’re out of that vicious cycle and back in the Championship, there’s a different feeling in the air. Which is natural, but it’s refreshing to see encouragement for players if they misplace a pass for example, or more specifically, some of the support shown to Dan Neil recently.

During our time in League One, there would have been a different reaction, especially if the end result didn’t end in three points.

The lack of expectation this season has given us as fans, and as a result the players, breathing space to have one or two setbacks without the world falling apart on us. As mentioned up top, the QPR and Sheffield United games are prime examples. Throwing a two-goal lead away through a header from the opposition keeper and losing away following an individual error leading to a red card, would have led to a very different reaction to the one we saw.

Sheffield United v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Bramall Lane
The away following at Bramall Lane knew the Lads had put in a performance
Photo by Isaac Parkin/PA Images via Getty Images

Even the build-up to fixtures has been more relaxed where the lowering of expectation means it’s not all about the result. In recent years, the result has been everything, but the reaction of the away following at Bramall Lane after the final whistle hasn’t been something we’ve seen for a good few years, where we applauded the team off the pitch with a sense of pride at their performance in defeat.

Even though we’d just gone down, it felt great following the final whistle. It was a setback, yet everyone knew it won’t be the last this season, but it feels like we’re in it together which performances like that promotes.

There’s a good feeling around the place at the moment, and of course, positive results will create that but we’re not letting the negative results dent that at the moment, the shackles of expectation are off and we can enjoy ourselves a bit this season without the feeling that it’s top-two or nothing.

This freedom appears to have spread to the players on the pitch and with the freedom that brings, along with the togetherness as a club that we have at the moment, we just might enjoy this season.

Stoke City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images


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