Think back to September 5th 2022.
Sunderland slumped to a limp defeat against an ailing Middlesbrough side after being dealt a hammer blow to the side’s morale when Ross Stewart suffered an injury that would keep him out of the team for months to come.
Too many players simply didn’t turn up in the heat of an admittedly febrile atmosphere at the Riverside.
We had also just lost a popular manager who had dragged us out of League One after four years too many, and had hired one of Boro’s own most cherished sons to try and steady the ship. Defeat at the hands of Tony Mowbray’s former charges really stung.
Mowbray was hardly an awe-inspiring appointment, although we heard good things from Blackburn and Boro fans about their erstwhile manager. With the loss of our talismanic target man up top, and Ellis Simms not really looking like the finished product as yet, I was losing my early season optimism about the Lads’ Championship return.
So, several bumpy months later, a generally convincing win against a Middlesbrough side who have also improved massively since September seems like an apt place to stop and admire the progress we’re making under ‘Mogga’.
We got a first glimpse of Amad that night in September, and his transformation into our lodestar since then serves as a great indication of the work Mowbray is doing here. Throughout the ups and downs that have accompanied our injury-ridden campaign so far, Amad has gone from strength to strength.
Again against Boro on Sunday, everything went through him as we ripped through our opponents on occasion. I’ll even forgive him a pretty awful miss in the first half, because so much of what we do that is good is down to him. I just wish we had two of him, one to orchestrate our midfield and another to terrify defences with his rapid runs in behind.
Patrick Roberts’ performance was another vindication of the character-building work our Boro-born boss has been doing since September. The man Mowbray says is the most talented player in the league (although I think Amad might have a few words to say about that!) shone throughout.
That said, he will rightly be remembered for the ball over the top that led to Dael Fry’s sending off, Ross Stewart’s goal and ultimately our victory on the day. It was reminiscent of the ball he played for Stewart’s goal at Hull in December, and Roberts is now forming a more consistent partnership with Amad too. I almost forgot that Alex Pritchard is out injured during the game, such was the quality of our link up play in his absence. When he’s back, the competition for places we’ll have behind Stewart will be great.
Dan Neil continues to improve week on week, and was really positionally mature without ‘skip’ Corry Evans beside him for most of the game. Patto came up with his now regularly scheduled big save, Aji Alese showed guts and class in equal measure on his return to the side, and Trai Hume looks ten times the player he did when Burnley utterly humiliated him at the Stadium of Light in October.
A squad that was united under Alex Neil looks even more so under his successor. I can’t remember the last time I liked pretty much every player in our squad, and I love it. Mowbray has made a team of tyros into a resilient unit who, at their best, balance steel and stardust. Every player does their bit, and a shoutout has to go to fringe players like Bailey Wright for stepping up when needed this weekend.
This is a side of great talent but, more importantly, amazing endeavour and usually excellent organisation. There will be many, many more bumps in the road, as we saw last week. But I have faith that we’re on an upward trajectory, and Sunday’s win was an apt reminder of that.
I was afraid after September’s derby-not-derby fixture that this would be a season of retrenchment if not outright regression. Instead, a team who were impressively solid have become increasingly capable of expression and exceptionalism.
For that, I salute you, Tony Mowbray!