Our point at Blackpool rounded off a good festive period for the club, and got the new year off to a positive start, too. Of course, we’d have all liked to have claimed all three and made it three wins on the spin – and, in reality, we should have done just that. But it was a good away point, and added to a tally that I’m sure we all would have quite happily accepted to have on the opening day of 2023 before the season started.
The point was significant in another way, too, as it means we have beaten the number of points we accumulated in the disastrous 2017-18 season.
Five years on, it still baffles me how that squad managed to be quite so bad – and it brings home just how much things have improved at the club, particularly over the past two years or so.
Five years ago, we had huge amounts of experience (the type of experience that, ironically enough, Alex Neil craved). Cattermole, Oviedo, Kone, Camp, N’Dong, Grabban, Gibson, Wilson, Rodwell, McGeady, O’Shea and Vaughan all had hundreds of games under their belts; significant amounts of Premier League, Championship or equivalent experience. They were all paid handsomely, ridiculously so, and had cost a hell of a lot of money between them too.
However, they just weren’t a team. There was no sign of ‘we want to play for this club’ – in fact, in some cases, it was actively the opposite.
They were here because they had to be. They were here because we were paying them more than they’d get elsewhere. Bar a few exceptions, they did the bare minimum, and as a club we paid the price.
Of course, there were mitigating factors. Off the field we were a mess, thanks to Ellis Short losing interest and trusting the wrong people along the way – and that transmitted to the players and the fans too.
Fast forward to today, and what a seismic shift we’ve seen. Of course, it hasn’t been all plain sailing, and the three years that followed Short were almost as disastrous, but since Kyril Louis Dreyfus’s arrival, we’ve been quietly transformed.
There’s been no great fanfare, no bold statements, no outlandish spending. Instead, there’s been thought, focus, diligence and achievement.
If you take a look through our squad, before this season only a handful of them had played at Championship level for any meaningful time. Take Bailey Wright, Danny Batth and Alex Pritchard out of the equation, and Championship experience is incredibly limited. It’s a concern for some – Mr Neil being a case in point – but the flip side is we simply don’t know how high the ceiling is for them; and for the majority, it’s at least Premier League.
The team that played at Wigan was the youngest to turn out in English football this season, and showed huge quality and determination to get a convincing win. They showed tremendous amounts of ability, skill and guile.
Yesterday, other qualities emerged. Many of the lads that played at Blackpool yesterday had been on their sickbed pre-game, but were single-minded about playing, determined to not let their teammates, the fans or the club down.
If that isn’t as stark a contrast as possible to the mess of a squad that disgracefully upped sticks five years ago, I don’t know what is.
The importance of that strength of character cannot be underestimated – particularly when it’s combined with a hell of a lot of ability. And, it’s no accident we’ve brought good characters, who are also good footballers, into the club. Again, the comparison to five years ago is stark.
Some people try to belittle the term ‘the project’ or ‘the model’ when talking about Sunderland’s plan and progress, but it merely encapsulates that we’ve finally got a clear, definitive and identifiable strategy.
We’re signing young players who want to play first-team football; developing them into better players and creating an environment in which they can flourish. We’re no longer making it up as we go along, there’s finally a long-term focus – and we’re already seeing the evidence of that on the pitch. Ability-wise alone, I reckon this is best Sunderland team I’ve ever seen play – and the potential is astronomical. The difference now to what Speakman and KLD inherited is unbelievable – it’s chalk and cheese, night and day, and they and the staff they’ve appointed have to take huge praise for that. And you get the sense that this is only the start.
The transfer window is, of course, now open – and it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out for us. Tony Mowbray, I’m sure, has his own ideas of the type of player he needs to make the squad even better; he’ll undoubtedly be a little more pragmatic than his predecessor if he doesn’t get it all his own way, which can only be positive.
It’s clear we need reinforcements – particularly up front, in defence and, I’d argue, in goal – so we could be in for a pretty busy January.
Last year, we saw the likes of Danny Batth, Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts and Jay Matete arrive – and they all played hugely important roles in helping us get back into the championship.
Of course, we’re likely to field enquiries for our better players, too, and more than anything I just hope we’re still talking about Sunderland’s Ross Stewart come early February. The lad’s class, and I am still keeping my fingers crossed an agreement is finally reached to extend his stay with us.
For all of the positives that we’ve seen from the ‘model’, it will have enough flex in it to ensure that players such as Stewart are kept if at all possible. That doesn’t mean paying him stupid money a la Lamine Kone, but being flexible enough to incentivise any deal to be comparable with what another Championship club may offer.
After all, this isn’t someone from outside the club, someone unproven. It’s a player who’s proved beyond doubt just how good he is, just how important he is – and that’s surely got to count for a lot.
Let’s hope it does!