When Dennis Cirkin went in where it hurts to head home Alex Pritchard’s inch-perfect cross on Saturday, it felt like a huge release of pressure at the end of a trying week.
Cirkin took a fearful blow to the head for his trouble and was briefly knocked unconscious, but sometimes that’s what you must do in order to earn the rewards. Having fallen behind to a sloppy goal from Jake Cooper, the Lads rallied well, and having taken four points off Gary Rowett’s side this season, we can consider it a job well done.
To say the least, the Millwall game couldn’t have represented a greater contrast to our trip to Fulham one week earlier.
That was an encounter during which we were able to showcase our much-heralded attacking style of play to its fullest extent, and were lauded by observers for doing so.
At The Den, however, the space was restricted, the game was fractious and the physical challenge immense. Despite the challenge, our young squad refused to fold even after falling behind, and Cirkin’s equaliser ensured that we left south London with a creditable draw.
In some ways, this game wasn’t the ideal fixture after our failure to bring in attacking reinforcements but on the other hand, the idea that our season would drift into nothingness had we lost didn’t stack up either.
After the excitement of Craven Cottage came the final hours of the transfer window, which unfolded in what can only be described as predictable fashion.
Was Player X joining? Was Ellis Simms returning to finish what he’d started? Surely Ross Stewart would be adequately replaced and the mistakes of the past weren’t going to be repeated?
However, when the window slammed shut, the analysis began and it wasn’t pretty.
Yes, our failure to add depth upfront was a source of immense frustration, and even though Kristjaan Speakman explained the rationale behind the decision articulately during his latest podcast appearance, it wasn’t enough to appease everyone, which came as no surprise.
Yes, it’s going to be a major challenge for this squad to navigate the remaining games without our talismanic frontman, and the emphasis on the likes of Amad, Joe Gelhardt (whose debut on Saturday didn’t really offer a true indication of what he’ll bring to the squad) and Patrick Roberts to contribute with goals will be immense.
However, the idea that the club ‘lacks ambition’ and is somehow attempting to avoid challenging for the playoffs simply doesn’t carry any real weight.
Last summer, when the fashionable line was that we’d do well to survive because we’d ‘only’ finished fifth in League One, would we have accepted our current position of being within touching distance of the top six with seventeen league games left?
We seem to be operating on something of a sliding scale when it comes to expectations, but not every goal conceded should lead to doom and gloom, and not every loss signals the end of our chances. Games will be lost between now and the end of the campaign, but we’ve responded to setbacks before and will do so again.
It’s abundantly clear that the long-term aim is to establish Sunderland as a competitive force in the Premier League. The idea that we should simply get promoted, pocket the TV riches and not worry a jot about the threat of relegation seems more than a touch misguided.
We’ve often comforted ourselves with the idea that we’re a ‘top ten’ Premier League club in terms of stadium, fanbase, and potential. During the wilderness years, it was one thing that seemed to sustain us.
With that in mind, would we want to find ourselves locked into the kind of repetitive cycle that’s often defined Norwich City for the best part of a decade?
Surely we want a future for Sunderland that doesn’t involve perennial relegation battles and throwing millions of pounds away simply to scrape survival on a yearly basis.
As Tom Albrighton wrote yesterday, the club is embarking on a long-term rebuild, based on faith in youth, a stable coaching setup, and some genuine rhyme and reason behind the recruitment policy.
Quick fixes are not on their agenda and with the likes of Trai Hume and Dan Ballard improving at a rate of knots, we’re starting to get an idea of which players could potentially make the step up to the top flight- whenever that might be.
Fulham on Wednesday night is a chance for us to get back to what we do best, and with Reading to visit Wearside on Saturday, this could be a week of further progress. The season is still alive, there’s a great deal to play for, and we can’t lose sight of that fact.