Let’s be honest: if it was entertainment and good family fun you were looking for in Sunderland for a number of years, the Empire Theatre, rather than the Stadium of Light, was generally the place to be.
Of course there were a smattering of excellent performances and results during those years, when everything clicked and the opposition were occasionally blown away.
To cover that angle, I’m thinking of occasions such as the 5-0 victory over the Wirral’s finest football team in Tranmere Rovers and the emphatic win against Sheffield Wednesday under Lee Johnson, but more often than not, it was grinding, it was unenjoyable, and it was as dull as ditchwater.
Now though, things are different.
Sunderland AFC of 2023 aren’t merely progressing, we’re doing it in a style that’s becoming ever more impressive to watch. For years, we talked about the need to develop an ‘identity’, and there’s no doubt that an identity is what we’ve now got.
This style of play doesn’t always bring about the results we might hope for and the players will naturally experience fallow periods, but I’d rather we backed ourselves to deliver, took the hits as they came and continued to view the bigger picture, rather than stumbling along with no clear plan and hoping for a miracle.
At thirty four, I now class myself as middle aged and woefully out of touch with the modern trends of football, so Adil Aouchiche’s unique goal celebration against Birmingham City on Saturday didn’t exactly resonate with me.
However, the exciting young Frenchman injected plenty of verve and attacking impetus when he entered the fray, and his goal was just reward.
I like Aouchiche a lot, because he’s got swagger, confidence, and skill in abundance.
He’s going to be a real showman of a footballer for us, someone who’ll dazzle and frustrate, possibly even in the same passage of play, and he’s not alone, for we now have a group of players who can turn it on at will, leaving rivals bewildered and supporters thrilled.
Jack Clarke continues to tease and taunt opposition full backs for fun before adding the final ball to match, Jobe plays with the kind of positivity that seems to be a Bellingham family trait, and the likes of Trai Hume and Niall Huggins aren’t averse to embarking on enterprising runs whenever the mood takes them.
This is surely what we want to see as Sunderland fans, is it not? Back yourself, give it a go, don’t leave the field wondering. Even if it doesn’t work first time, regather yourself and try again.
‘Fearlessness’ is a word you hear a lot in football circles, but we’ve often seen how the weight of the red and white stripes has hindered plenty of talented footballers over the years. They shrunk, instead of rising to the challenge; they played within themselves and often chose the safe pass instead of taking the progressive option.
With that in mind, it’s incredibly heartening to see this group of players thriving, having the confidence to play their natural game, and giving the fans their money’s worth on a regular basis.
Remember Pierre Ekwah’s ‘it’s just like playing with your mates’ comment following the Southampton game? That sums it all up: a diverse, cosmopolitan group of players all working for each other and sharing in the rewards when it all clicks.
Saturday’s win, our fifth from eight league games at home this season, wasn't perfect by any means.
There were moments of sloppiness compounded by a handful of misplaced passes, and our usually reliable midfield didn’t quite function as it might’ve done. However, we stuck to our guns, played the way we know we can, and eventually reaped the rewards.
What Tony Mowbray has done since he’s been at Sunderland is encourage individuals to flourish within the framework he’s laid out.
There’s plenty of latitude and license for players to express themselves as long as they don’t shirk the less glamorous side of the game, and even if we’re not as brutally functional as we were under Alex Neil, we’re capable of playing some exceptionally enjoyable football.
Have we cracked it completely? No, and that’s the exciting thing, because there’s clearly more to come from this squad.
I always find that the best barometer of the post-match mood is the buzz (or occasionally the lack thereof) among the fans as we leave the stadium. That’s how you judge the feeling among the fanbase instead of using the soapbox world of social media as the marker.
For too long, the mood was often flat and uninspired but nowadays, we’re regularly applauding the lads off and heading home in good spirits, eagerly reliving what we’d just watched and often praising the players to the hilt.
Where do Sunderland sit in the wider football pecking order? I don’t know, and to be honest, I don’t particularly care right now.
I’m just enjoying watching this team develop, grow as individuals and enjoy their football. Watching the Lads is no longer a joyless, arduous task, and at this stage, that’s more than enough for me.