Despite the lingering annoyance at the outcome against Middlesbrough, the smoke signals from Sunderland’s social media feed have been giving off a distinctly positive vibe in recent days as we prepare for a potentially pivotal (for one boss at least) clash at the bet365 Stadium this coming Saturday.
Yes, there was that madcap video released in praise of Jack Clarke following his fully merited Championship ‘player of the month’ award, but more importantly than that, pictures featuring many of our key players on the training ground and looking positive hinted at some light at the end of an injury-filled tunnel.
Pierre Ekwah, Alex Pritchard, and Dennis Cirkin are back on the grass and seemingly heading in the right direction, and Aji Alese and Bradley Dack hopefully aren’t too far behind, either.
Considering that we’d generally done quite well in the absence of those lads up until the visit of Michael Carrick’s team, their hopefully imminent return will provide us with a real injection of quality when the league season resumes.
The game against the Potters feels like the perfect chance to get back to winning ways after the debacle against Middlesbrough. Alex Neil might’ve been ‘backed in the transfer market’ (remember that being used as his excuse for abandoning ship at Sunderland last year?) but it’s fair to say that it hasn’t translated into results.
The fans are getting restless, Neil is under growing pressure, and after an international break that in my opinion came at the perfect time, a chance to expel the recent 0-4 home loss from our system is one that we need to grasp.
Responding to heavy defeats with positive results next time out is something that this team has done regularly since we returned to the Championship, and I’ve got no doubts about our ability to do so again.
This squad is young, but they’re also mature beyond their years. They’ll know that the second half collapse against the Teessiders wasn’t acceptable, and will doubtless be hellbent on ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.
The only frustration is that Dan Neil, so rarely trusted by his namesake during our 2021/2022 end-of-season run, won't feature in Staffordshire, thereby denying the midfielder the chance to atone for his emotional outburst against Boro and show his former head coach just how much he’s progressed.
That aside, it feels as though things are slowly starting to turn when it comes to the list of absent players.
The list of potential returnees is a mixture of proven quality in the likes of Cirkin, Ekwah, Dack and Pritchard, as well as some exciting wildcards in the shape of Eliezer Mayenda and former PSG prospect Timothée Pembélé, and that’s to say nothing of long-term absentees such as Corry Evans and Jay Matete.
Suffice it to say, Mowbray is going to be faced with plenty of tough calls in the coming weeks, but trying to decide who to leave out rather than desperately trying to fill a starting XI and bench is exactly where any head coach would love to be, and it’s no bad thing.
How does he fit Alese and Cirkin back into a defence that has largely been reliable in their absence? Where does the brilliant Jobe slot in when Ekwah, Pritchard and Dack are fully fit and ready to go? What can Mayenda, recently praised by Mowbray, add to a forward line for whom goals are proving hard to come by?
Big decisions, but positive ones without a doubt, and competition for places is healthy, as Abdoullah Ba has proven recently.
At the back, which is possibly the area of most intrigue, the notion of an Alese/Dan Ballard central defensive partnership is one that I’m keen to see us explore at some stage.
The doubters will cry foul, but the truth is that Luke O’Nien is a Championship-class central defender, who’s seldom let the team down when asked to play there and has worn the captain’s armband with distinction.
On the other hand, Alese brings an entirely different skillset to the role, and that’s before you even consider Jenson Seelt and Nectar Triantis, for whom patience is important as they continue to adjust to life in the Championship.
Squad depth was a lingering concern during the summer, but there’s little doubt that, at full strength, we have ample depth in most positions. Central midfield remains the only real area of concern, and there’ll be a minimal, if any, drop off in quality if and when Mowbray decides to rotate.
Much is made of the relative strength of other squads in this division, but as our treatment room empties and the training fields at the Academy of Light are filled with returning players, the black cloud that’s hung over the club since last season’s playoff run will hopefully start to lift, and that’s something we can all feel very optimistic about.