I daresay the last few weeks are weeks none of us will forget - and not just because of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.
It somehow seems prescient that Sunderland played the Royals a stone’s throw from Windsor and produced a performance which surpassed the wildest expectations following the injury to Ellis Simms. Jack Clarke’s goal and its build-up was sublime - a word often overused, but in this instance justified as Sunderland swept from their goal to Reading’s without a touch from the opposition. Magisterial.
The match at the Select Car Leasing Stadium (surely the most unromantic name ever applied to a football stadium, apart from also being the wordiest) demonstrated why we should have faith in the Sunderland ‘project’.
A team bereft of its strikers produced a dazzling illustration of what it means to be a team. The exuberance and confidence of youth combined with the wily and wise and left Reading bewildered and confused.
I heard it said afterwards that Reading were poor. I heard the same following Sunderland’s 3-0 defeat of Rotherham United. Both teams had hitherto unbeaten records - Rotherham unbeaten in all their matches, and Reading unbeaten at home.
Sunderland have to be given credit for nullifying the threat both took into the matches, and I believe there’s no coincidence the results came from Sunderland’s approach in both matches.
On their day Sunderland can be unplayable, but it does rely to an extent on constancy from the likes of Clarke and Roberts, both of whom are fallible, but also both are capable of producing sheer magic. Combined with the resolve the defenders are finding behind them - Lynden Gooch, Aji Alese and Danny Batth deserve great credit, and Anthony Patterson’s growing in maturity - Sunderland are undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. Corry Evans has been an outstanding captain and quietly and efficiently orchestrates the team.
It is widely spoken that ten games is a good barometer of a team’s potential, and with Sunderland fifth in the Championship it’s a barometer many would have grabbed with both hands in pre-season when Alex Neil did his steadfast best to dampen expectations.
Sunderland has scored more goals from open play than anyone else in the top four divisions, and that in the past two matches included five goals without recognised strikers!
The international break and the forthcoming World Cup break arguably work well for Sunderland. Much was made by Alex Neil of burn-out last season and with such a young squad these breaks afford Sunderland good opportunities to recharge and regroup.
Of course, one inevitable upshot of Sunderland’s good start to the season will come in January when their resolve will be tested when it comes to the likes of Ross Stewart, Jack Clarke and Dan Neil - Neil and Stewart especially as they are already on the radar of Premier League scouts.
It was interesting to hear Tony Mowbray say he’d looked at Clarke when he was Blackburn manager but he failed to impress in an under 23s fixture with Spurs, and Mowbray’s interest moved elsewhere.
Therein lies the rub. Clarke can blow hot and cold. When he’s hot he’s blistering - i.e. Bristol City, Reading, but when he’s cold he’s arctic - think Middlesbrough.
Mowbray will be searching for the key to Clarke’s consistency, and I’d put money on him probably finding that key.
Aji Alese has slipped seamlessly into Dennis Cirkin’s boots. Jewison Bennette looks mercurial, and Abdoullah Ba advertised his talent at Vicarage Road. Amad had his moments, and there’s Michut still to come.
Yes, there is a long way still to go, but to date this team has answered a lot of questions posed in the summer about its ability to withstand the rigours of the Championship.
There will be dips. Every team has them.
However, Sunderland seem to have discovered the potency of a good team spirit - a harmonious dressing room with everyone pulling in the same direction.
Alex Neil has to take a lot of credit for its creation. Tony Mowbray admits he has not had to change much, as there was little that needed fixing. In fact, his biggest challenge has been tackling the injuries to Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms, which he did with aplomb, albeit the performance at Middlesbrough was lacklustre until a late rally when on another night Sunderland may have rescued a point.
Mowbray speaks wholeheartedly and with passion - he instils belief and one feels the club is in safe hands. He says he accepts that people think he’s dour, but listen to what he says and he is thoughtful and insightful, on anything from pick and mix to Patrick Roberts in transition!
These are exciting times. It’s also great to have another Bennett(e) on board… is this the mark of another new era at Sunderland AFC?