When Edouard Michut entered the fray after Corry Evans went off injured against Middlesbrough, it was almost the very definition of a ‘baptism of fire’.
The PSG loanee had seen very little first team action up to that point, and suddenly he was being tasked with running our midfield in a fiercely contested game against a streetwise and well-drilled Boro outfit.
The young Frenchman was excellent that day, and many of his subsequent performances have been eye-catching, too.
However, Michut, along with many of his teammates, is now experiencing the other side of the coin, where things don’t come quite as easily, fatigue starts to creep in, and performance levels begin to dip.
Perhaps it was always going to happen given the relentless schedule and the combative nature of recent fixtures, but as we gear up for the final months of what’s been a notable campaign in the club’s recent history, the challenge is now different.
After drawing against Bristol City and losing against Rotherham and Coventry, our crop of exciting young talents have been confronted with the tougher reality of Championship football as their resilience is tested, their character is developed, and their heart for the fight needs to come to the fore.
The likes of Michut, Jack Clarke, Trai Hume, Amad, Joe Gelhardt and Dan Ballard - all supremely talented footballers - now need to show the qualities and values that’ll guide them through these kinds of periods.
Talent-wise, this is easily one of the most potent Sunderland teams of recent times, and we’re now set to discover, for arguably the first time this season, if they’ve got the steel to go with their skill, as my colleague Martin Wanless eluded to on Monday.
It’s at times like this when people might start to ask, to whom do the players look when things start to go a little bit awry?
Tony Mowbray has undoubtedly created a positive culture that rewards patience and enables these lads to perform at their best, but his influence from the touchline only extends so far.
He’s not going to resort to public dressing-downs, as Peter Reid infamously did with Michael Gray back in 1995/1996, but like any head coach, he does need the players to respond when things start going against them, and he also needs to recognise the telltale signs of fatigue and rotate accordingly.
All season, the word ‘experience’ has been tossed around, to either justify the need to spend or to express doubts about the current squad’s ability to last the pace, and the irony of the injured Evans signing a new contract in between two games where his experience would’ve been crucial wasn’t lost on anyone.
On the other hand, if the players can emerge from this particular slump unscathed, they’ll have gained invaluable experience, and not only will it toughen them up individually, it’ll strengthen the already impressive bond between the players.
It’s also true that the players have often confounded such doubts, with many performances of unexpected quality and plenty of memorable moments along the way. They’re certainly good enough, but the ups and downs in form need to be dealt with when they occur.
Take Gelhardt as an example.
The subject of interest from five Championship clubs before his arrival at Sunderland, the on-loan Leeds attacker has found the going tough, with one goal and a host of good chances spurned, despite no lack of effort and work rate.
However, you can caveat this by remembering that he’s being forced to fill the void left by Ross Stewart- a task that many tall, rangy strikers would find difficult, let alone someone of Gelhardt’s physical profile.
Can he find that missing ingredient, hit the goal trail and show everyone why he’s so highly-rated by Leeds fans? It’s as much a test for Gelhardt, a natural number ten currently operating as a nine, as it is for his teammates to provide him with good service.
Even if this season ultimately concludes with us missing out on the playoffs, it’ll be by no means a wasted exercise.
For the lads new to the league, they'll have gained valuable knowledge about life in the second tier, and for the established players, it should give them the incentive to push even harder during 2023/2024 and ensure that the undoubted progression carries over into next season.