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Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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We’re in for a bumpy ride - but this has been a great start to the season for Sunderland

“With four points from our opening two league games, Sunderland have made an encouraging start to life in the Championship - but stiffer tests lie ahead,” writes Phil West

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Two games played, four points collected, much to be happy about, and some areas that require fine-tuning. That is the state of play as Sunderland’s return to the Championship begins to take shape.

Considering that there were many premonitions of doom circulating in the days leading up to last weekend’s curtain-raiser against Coventry, it has been uplifting that in our two league games so far, The Lads have demonstrated that not only are they capable of competing at this level when they put their A-game onto the park, but that the leap from League One to the Championship has not been a chasm that some of our players would struggle to bridge.

Of course, there have been frustrations and setbacks in the two league matches we have played so far, and it would be blinkered to the point of foolhardy to proclaim that we’ve got everything figured out.

Showing faith in such a young and inexperienced team is a double-edged sword: you have to accept the occasional shortcomings in order to reap the rewards, and we have seen a mixture of both thus far.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Poor game management and naivety stung us to the tune of two dropped points against Coventry, and on Saturday against Bristol City, we had to withstand significant periods of pressure from the home team, as some lingering defensive frailties were highlighted yet again.

The lack of a genuine midfield enforcer and the ongoing use of Lynden Gooch as a makeshift right-back (in an admittedly admirable show of faith from Alex Neil) are issues that require solutions, whether that be with the promotion of Trai Hume, or hopefully more additions before the transfer window closes.

Indeed, after Saturday’s game, Neil conceded that had we drawn or even lost, the perception would’ve been that we had endured a poor start to the season, and questions may have been asked. That is another one of his strengths: he understands the demands that are part and parcel of managing Sunderland, but he simply takes them in his stride.

However, looking at things from a wider perspective, there are certainly far more positives than negatives.

The manner in which we fought back to snatch victory against Nigel Pearson’s side was admirable, with the never-say-die spirit that anchors this team being demonstrated to full effect, and the players not wilting after falling behind in the game.

Bristol City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

In addition, there have been flashes of sparkling attacking football, with the likes of Jack Clarke, and Alex Pritchard proving that they are capable of making the step up, and at the back, Daniel Ballard has slotted in with ease, relishing the challenge and showing all of the class and composure you would expect from an Arsenal academy graduate.

So, with the players adapting nicely, what of the boss?

Sunderland’s record since Neil took over has been formidable, and the Scot, who is not a stranger to this division, is looking ever more at ease in the Stadium of Light hot seat.

In competitive matches, his record is blemished by a solitary defeat at the hands of MK Dons (a result that now seems a lifetime away), and his strongest asset, one that he has carried over from League One, is the fact that he is a manager completely in control of everything from team selection to in-game management, to swatting aside inane questions from the media.

It is abundantly clear that he fears no opponent, and thus far, that attitude appears to be filtering down to the players as well.

Sunderland v Coventry City - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

To listen to Pritchard’s interview, post-Coventry, was to gain a fascinating insight into the psychology of this team. Togetherness and belief are the cornerstones, and that is due in no small part to the influence of Neil.

In a somewhat perverse way, however, I am curious as to what the reaction will be, and how the players and coaches respond when we lose a game in the league. When the waters become slightly more choppy, which they invariably will, our team spirit will undoubtedly be tested, but that should not, and hopefully will not lead to panic.

Neil enjoys the kind of backing not afforded to a Sunderland boss since Sam Allardyce, and rightly so, such has been his impact since his arrival. As a result, losses won’t constitute a crisis to him, and wins shouldn’t suggest that we’ve got all the bases covered. He is savvy enough to know that we will endure rocky spells of form, but that is simply the nature of the beast.

Wednesday night’s League Cup game against Sheffield Wednesday (with memories of that glorious night at Hillsborough in May still fresh in the memory) will probably be an exercise in mass squad rotation, and Saturday’s visit of QPR is a chance to turn a good start into a great one.

The mood is upbeat, the belief is returning, and slowly but surely, Sunderland are taking steps forward again.


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