It’s quite incredible to think that the game at the weekend will be Sunderland’s first home game for a month.
The last time the Lads played in front of their own supporters was a memorable late-summer encounter with Rotherham on the 31st of August when Tony Mowbray got his first taste of the Stadium of Light as our head coach, and the players responded with a performance of swaggering brilliance en route to a 3-0 victory.
Since then - with the Millwall game having been postponed - we have racked up a frustrating loss at the hands of Middlesbrough, a superb victory over Reading, and a gritty draw against Watford.
As a result we sit in a very encouraging fifth place, having gained a number of plaudits for our style of play as well as the individual performances of many of our players.
Despite the many pre-season predictions that the team that was ‘only good enough for fifth in League One’ would be exposed at a higher level and that the youthful profile of the team represented a gamble too far, Sunderland’s fearless approach to Championship football has been superb, and although we are not the finished article by any means, there are encouraging signs wherever you look.
Our game against Watford showcased the good and the not-so-good aspects of this team, and ultimately offered further proof of the rock solid team spirit on which last season’s success was built, and that has helped us to kick off 2022/2023 in such impressive fashion.
Yes, we were edged out in the physical duel against a team whom many were tipping to challenge strongly this season, but we stuck to our guns and did not panic.
At 2-1 down against a powerful Hornets team, we rallied impressively and Jewison Bennette’s equalising goal was just reward for our efforts. We could’ve even won the game were it not for Jack Clarke’s goal being disallowed, but a draw in such circumstances was a fine result.
Make no mistake - there is a sense of unity and resilience built into this group of players, the like of which we have not seen for some time. In backs-to-the-wall situations, such as the one we found ourselves in at Vicarage Road, those organic qualities are priceless.
Bennette, whose signing was initially met with a mixture of intrigue and bewilderment, backed up his efforts in that game with two goals for Costa Rica against South Korea in midweek and is sure to be on a real high, with the fans clearly developing a real affinity for him, and Mowbray speaking positively about his demeanour on the training ground.
In addition, the likes of Abdoullah Ba and Amad Diallo seem to be adapting well to life in red and white, and our core group of senior players are influencing games impressively and setting a consistent standard for their younger teammates to live up to.
Suffice it to say, the hiatus in league action has been somewhat frustrating.
During the League One years, these breaks were often a relief from the weekly grind, as international football provided a welcome dose of quality after watching the Lads being forced to slug it out against the likes of Wycombe, Accrington and AFC Wimbledon.
This time, however, it has felt like something of an unwanted distraction, but on the other hand, Mowbray and his coaches will have doubtless used the time to work with their players, help the new arrivals to settle in and to develop a variety of game plans that can be deployed when necessary.
There is no doubt that October is going to be an important month, and while it feels slightly over the top to use the phrase ‘season defining’, the fact that we have four games at home (one of which is a fascinating test against Vincent Kompany’s new-look Burnley) represents a fabulous opportunity for us to cement ourselves in the upper reaches of the table.
It has been a while since we flocked to the Stadium of Light, but come 3:00pm on Saturday, everyone, fans and players alike, will be fired up and ready to restart the league campaign in positive fashion. Preston will doubtless bring a large following, and everything will be set up for another entertaining affair.
Points on the board before the World Cup break are crucial, but confidence is high and under the experienced and steady leadership of Mowbray, there is every reason to think that our encouraging start to the season can continue as we return home this weekend.
Qatar 2022 might be just around the corner, but for now, it’s all about the boys in red and white.