At the end of Sunday’s gritty encounter with Blackpool, the slight sense of disappointment that we’d ‘only’ taken a point from the game not only highlighted how improved the second half performance had been, but it also hinted at how expectations and hopes have changed at Sunderland during recent months.
The past seven days have demonstrated that this youthful team can deliver in various situations and in different kinds of games.
Inconsistency has been one of our hallmarks during the first half of the season, but perhaps we’re just starting to turn the corner - and results always breed confidence, after all.
The Boxing Day victory over Blackburn was followed by a comprehensive walloping of Wigan on Thursday night, and our mini-odyssey against the Lancastrian teams was completed on Sunday against the Seasiders, who certainly tested our credentials and forced us to earn the point.
Three games, seven points, some enterprising football and plenty of fighting spirit along the way. It was surely a satisfactory return from a period during which the games came thick and fast and Tony Mowbray had to make use of his wider squad - with generally encouraging results.
To watch Sunderland right now is to watch a team where every player is fully committed, egos are checked at the door, and there’s no such thing as a lost cause.
According to Mowbray, illness had swept through the team ahead of the trip to Blackpool.
As a visibly exhausted Luke O’Nien spoke after making his two hundredth appearance for the club, the way we were able to respond during the second half was brought into sharp focus.
After a gruelling week, there’s now time to take stock.
The upcoming break from league action before we play Swansea represents a great opportunity on two fronts: to get as many first-team regulars as fit as possible and to hopefully make some inroads in the transfer market.
Yes, there’s the small matter of an FA Cup tie against Shrewsbury this Saturday, but that game is an ideal chance for Mowbray to rotate heavily.
As nice as a cup run would be all focus is on the league this season, and the trip to Shropshire is the perfect chance to give the likes of Jewison Bennette and Edouard Michut more game time - as well as perhaps offering some academy players their first taste of first team football.
Regarding transfers, one major positive is that any potential arrivals will be joining a club that is very much on the up and with aspirations of a top six finish this season. There’s hope and expectation but no major pressure on the players, and the overall environment is far healthier than it’s been for some time.
That ought to make us an attractive prospect and coupled with our success in blooding youth this season, you’d like to think that more exciting players will be arriving during the window.
Attacking reinforcements are needed, not least to atone for the loss of Ellis Simms, and Mowbray’s quotes after the Blackpool game suggested that moves are already being made in order to fill that void. If additions arrive ahead of our next league game then great, and there’s no suggestion that the club is on the back foot in that regard.
Elsewhere, an experienced backup for Anthony Patterson would be a bonus, but a powerful, ball-winning central midfielder is a must. The squad is fundamentally in excellent shape with a nucleus of quality players, but gradual improvements are clearly the stated aim.
After the utter disgrace of the 2017/2018 season, to see us sitting in sixth place with thirty eight points on the board and adding real value to the league is a breath of fresh air, but this is only the start.
Yes, the Championship is competitive, but is there anything to fear? Not at all, and if 2022 was the year where we finally began to take genuine steps forward once again, 2023 could be the year when we break into a gallop and set our sights increasingly higher.