In November 2019, I made a particularly bleak journey home after watching Sunderland, under the supposed ‘steady guidance’ of Phil Parkinson, stumble to a desperate, miserable defeat to Burton Albion on a freezing cold night under the Stadium of Light floodlights.
That night, our starting eleven was filled with many of the over-the-hill and journeymen players that typified our recruitment during the League One years, and the subsequent defeat was easily one of the worst I’d ever experienced.
It was one of those games that made you question exactly what was going on, and where the next dose of optimism was coming from. Was there genuine hope for the future? Could we ever see ourselves climbing back up the football pyramid?
Fast forward less than three years, however, and Sunderland AFC is stirring once again.
The picture is altogether different, and the turnaround has been quite something. Granted, it hasn’t always been easy, but as the new era continues to take shape, why shouldn’t we revel in supporting what feels like a reborn football club?
After Saturday’s gritty hard-earned point against Watford, we sit in fifth place with fifteen points to our name, despite falling behind twice in the game and being forced to dig deep to salvage a draw.
Indeed, there is a strong argument to be made that we should be at least four points better off, if not even more, but perhaps we can attribute those frustrating draws against Coventry and QPR to a touch of naivety as we made the step up from League One. There was also a misstep at the Riverside against Middlesbrough, but there were mitigating circumstances that night as well.
As it is, we head into the international break in a position of real strength and riding a wave of momentum. This season, we have played three teams comprised mainly of ex-Premier League players, and have competed strongly in all three fixtures- a very encouraging sign.
Despite nagging worries over the summer about the strength of the squad and whether the players would cope, the truth is that we have taken to the Championship with aplomb, and have not looked overawed or out of our depth in any game.
The players have acquitted themselves superbly, and team spirit is stronger than it has been for some time. Not bad for the nucleus of a squad that was tagged as ‘only good enough for fifth in League One’.
Of course there have been setbacks and frustrations along the way, and there will be more to come, but that is no surprise.
The profile of the squad demands patience from fans and coaches alike, but at this stage the policy of investing in youth and offering pathways for up-and-coming prospects is being vindicated.
If Kristjaan Speakman is worthy of criticism for the missteps he has made, of which there have been a few, he deserves a good deal of praise for targeting a particular kind of player in the market. The club is now recruiting footballers who are eager to learn, can develop whilst playing second-tier football, and who can also excite the fans and help the club to move forward.
So far this season the likes of Jack Clarke, Dennis Cirkin and Patrick Roberts have been outstanding; Aji Alese and Jay Matete both look to be finding some real form, and Jewison Bennette’s goal on Saturday was a special moment. Throw the likes of Abdoullah Ba and the yet-to-be-seen Edouard Michut into the mix, and it feels like there is so much more to come from this squad.
Indeed, such is the standard of continuity and forward planning at boardroom level that even the loss of our supposedly God-like former head coach Alex Neil hasn’t derailed things, something for which the club hierarchy deserves credit.
Tony Mowbray was swiftly installed following Neil’s departure, has settled in nicely, and has fully embraced the club’s policy of developing younger players and giving them their chance to represent our club.
The vastly experienced Mowbray, in contrast to his clearly restless and easily-swayed Neil, understands the connection between the club and its fans, and has continued the good work that was done by his predecessor, with a touch more flair added. The seamless transition from one head coach to another has been impressive, with no real disruption.
When we reconvene at the Stadium of Light after the international break, there will be a real sense of excitement in the air as we head into October and prepare for a run of games that could set us up nicely before the season pauses for the World Cup.
There is little to fear from opposing teams, and when we can choose from a fully-fit squad, there is no reason we cannot continue to make a hugely positive impression in our first season back.