I can’t help but cast my mind back sixteen long years, to the start of our 2006/2007 Championship season.
Of course, we all know how that campaign ended.
One swing of Carlos Edwards’ right boot, chaos at the Stadium of Light, and then a thumping final-day victory to seal the league title, but during those first few months under Roy Keane, our form was marked by inconsistency and a smattering of less-than-convincing performances, despite some excellent results at places like Pride Park and Elland Road.
After fifteen league games, we had six wins, eight losses, and a draw to our name, and our position in the table was not exactly eye-catching. Indeed, it was not until 2007 dawned that we really put our foot down and began to rattle off a series of wins that laid the foundations for promotion.
A repeat of that memorable conclusion feels unlikely at this stage, but there is little to suggest that a season of relative success- mid-table security and the prospect of genuine progress in years to come- is not achievable.
During the early weeks of 2022/2023, our form has been somewhat patchy, despite being competitive in every game and not looking overawed or outmatched against a higher standard of opposition.
Excellent away victories over Bristol City and Stoke City were tempered by the frustration of home draws against Coventry, QPR, and a narrow defeat to Norwich City. Tony Mowbray’s first game in charge was a celebratory affair as we cruised past Rotherham, but the ‘non-derby derby’ against Chris Wilder’s Middlesbrough did not yield a positive result.
In essence, our form is reasonably typical of a newly promoted club, and when you consider that two of our losses have been at the hands of teams filled with ex-Premier League players, and each by a single goal, it shows just how fine the margins are.
Monday night’s game against Middlesbrough was frustrating, but the performance wasn’t as shambolic as was initially claimed, and the idea that the home team ‘wanted it more’ doesn’t stack up, either.
In the first half, we struggled to keep the ball and we appeared to be spooked, either by the atmosphere, the pre-match injury to Ross Stewart, or possibly a combination of the two. Wilder’s team hit us with pace and power down the flanks, putting the likes of Jack Clarke and Dennis Cirkin under pressure and exposing a weakness.
The second half, in contrast, was much better.
Possession was retained more effectively, and it was simply a lack of cutting edge that denied us an equaliser. Ellis Simms might have taken some criticism after the game, but in his defence, he ploughed a lonely furrow upfront at the Riverside and there was no lack of effort, even as the game entered its final stages.
Indeed, the resilience of this team, compared to that of our 2017/2018 rabble, is night and day. Have we thrown in the towel at any stage? Are there any real questions about team spirit? I don’t think so.
There is little value in turning every single defeat into a crisis and using poor individual performances as definitive proof that certain players ‘are not good enough for this level’. The players are adjusting, and are doing so admirably, but losses in the Championship will occur more regularly than in League One, and every error, goal conceded and defeat is amplified.
I would not be at all surprised if, for the next couple of months, our form remains inconsistent, and that we secure enough points to keep ourselves well ahead of the lower reaches of the table, but not quite enough to trouble the top six.
There is no doubt that the loss of Cirkin and Stewart to medium-term injury is a blow, and one that has already been met with dismay from the fans.
Can Simms step up and lead the line in the Scot’s absence? Can Amad Diallo or Jewison Bennette take the chances that will likely fall their way? How will we adjust defensively in order to cope? Much has been made of Mowbray’s need for a ‘plan B’, and that time has arrived. How he sets us up during the coming weeks will be fascinating.
Setbacks, tests of character and poor results will be par for the course this season, but just like we did sixteen years ago, if we can navigate our way through them and emerge relatively unscathed, the players will be better and stronger for the experience.