Watching and supporting football is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Yes, who we support is generally an accident of birth that we have absolutely no say in, but we all spend hours of our spare time (and much of our technically not-so-spare-time) following our club. And we should get enjoyment out of it.
For a good while, it hasn’t been fun at all following Sunderland, has it? But, the last few weeks certainly have hinted that the short-to-medium term at least could be rather enjoyable.
The September international break always gives us a chance to assess where we are and how the season might unfold, and I think everyone would have to be pretty pleased with how the season’s gone so far.
Yes, we had the shenanigans with Alex Neil slithering off to Stoke, but I don’t think that’s hurt us so far.
In fact, we may well look back on it as a positive.
Our former head coach clearly wasn’t enamoured with a transfer strategy that prioritised the likes of Bennette, Ba and Michut ahead of some tried-and-tested championship players.
And to an extent, you can understand why. Job security for a manager – head coach – is generally hanging by a thread, and a couple of bad results can see that thread snap without much notice.
Short-term necessity over long-term planning was where Alex Neil was focusing – and understandably so. If the short term’s not right, there usually isn’t a long term to see.
Of course, there’s a ceiling to what proven championship players can achieve. Their potential has been established. Signing them may be a bit safer in the short term, but in the long term? You absolutely know the best you’re going to get.
With the players we’ve signed this summer, their potential is unknown.
Neil was a bit condescending when talking about the likes of Bennette coming in. Clearly, they weren’t ‘his’ signings, and he clearly saw little use for them in the immediate term. Aje Alese the same. Ones for the future.
The signings of Ba, Michut and Amad were only announced after Neil’s departure. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.
I think it’s a fair bet, however, that they wouldn’t have been introduced to the first team as quickly as they have been over the past week – and we’ve reaped the rewards of that over the past couple of games.
The introductions of Bennette, Amad and Ba have given us something special off the bench. They’re all technically very good players, have pace and bravery, and offer a lot to the team – particularly against tiring defences.
Neil bemoaned the lack of options he had off the bench, yet yesterday our options from the bench changed the game. Mowbray’s embraced them, and that’s what the club needed.
The truly exciting thing for me at this point in the season, though, is the potential. None of us knows what the ceiling is for these players. That includes the likes of Patterson, Clarke, Cirkin and Neil, as well as the more recent arrivals. In a few seasons' time, they could be playing champions league, or they could be plying their trade in Ligue 2. Who knows?
But, as long as the balance is right, and you’re not relying completely on young players, then having that unknown potential available is a huge, huge positive. The more experienced players – Danny Batth, Luke O’Nien, Lynden Gooch, Corry Evans, Patrick Roberts and Alex Pritchard – deserve much credit too. They’re providing a solid base for the other players to come through, and the value of that cannot be underestimated.
If we continue in the way we’ve been doing over the past 20 months, Sunderland will also be an attractive environment for other young players to join, too.
Kristjaan Speakman has attracted criticism from several directions during his time here – including from us here on occasion – but he deserves a lot of credit for how the squad’s shaping up. Compare the playing squad to the one he inherited and it’s like comparing day and night.
It’s impossible to argue with any credibility that the football side of the club’s not progressed significantly since he came in as Sporting Director.
Of course, it’s not all perfect. The injury to Ross Stewart has been a huge blow, and while there was no predicting he’d be crocked just as soon as the transfer window shut, I do think we were probably a bit cocky in not signing a third striker.
However, it’s easy to sit here and say, ‘we should have bought him’. The right player has to be available to bring in (both from a financial and personality perspective), and if it’s a loan, the parent club will want their player to go somewhere where there’s a strong chance of regular first-team football.
Sending a striker to a club whose start striker was an ever-present last season probably isn’t option number one, and the club evidently thought that there were enough goals in the attacking players to manage without Stewart and Simms if we needed to.
So far, they’ve been proven correct.
So, ten games in, and I’m pretty impressed with how we’ve taken to life in the championship – and fifteen points from ten games doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. We certainly should have had a few more. The QPR game was two points dropped, while you could make a strong case that we should have added more points from the games against Coventry, Sheffield United and Norwich – as well as Saturday.
While we’re sitting in fifth, only three points separate us from Birmingham in seventeenth, so it’s a very tight league, and that’ll continue for a while yet.
We have two weeks off to regroup before we’re back at the Stadium of Light against Preston. Ellis Simms and Dennis Cirkin will hopefully be fit again, and we’ll get the next chapter of the season underway.
Who knows what will happen, but what we can all be certain about is that, over the past 20 months or so, our trajectory is definitely moving in the right direction.
Yes, there’ll be ups and downs within that – that’s natural, that’s football, and every single club has to deal with them. By their nature, our young players will be inconsistent, and how they adapt over the weeks and months ahead will be intriguing to watch.
So, strap yourselves in for what could be a very entertaining ride indeed.
And, surely, that’s what football’s all about.