When Sunderland’s players trudged off after ninety miserable minutes against Stoke City, it marked the first time all season when they, along with Tony Mowbray, had really faced sustained questions about their resilience and ability to endure tough times without crumbling.
Prior to a dark day at the Stadium of Light, we’d already been beaten by Rotherham and Coventry and the gutless home defeat against the Potters marked the lowest point of what’s largely been a successful and broadly enjoyable season.
Simply put, we were a disorganised and disheartened rabble that day, and it was as startling as it was unexpected.
However, two weeks and three tricky games later, it’s fair to say that the Lads have expelled the aberration against Alex Neil’s team from their systems, with three vastly improved performances and four hard-earned points.
That game was clearly an outlier and not truly representative of what this team is about, but they’ve still had to go through some real tests in order to prove it.
As we tried to recover from the Stoke debacle, a trip to Norwich was hardly considered a easy assignment but a performance of supreme resilience and exceptional work rate, capped with a well-taken goal from Abdoullah Ba, saw us home against David Wagner’s Canaries.
If that game was a triumph of application and sheer will to win, Wednesday night’s visit of Sheffield United was an excellent lesson in what’s needed to challenge for an automatic promotion berth, and the standard we need to aim for if greater progress is to happen next season.
Paul Heckingbottom’s side were superb and despite the Lads taking the lead through Edouard Michut, you always had a sense that the class, physical strength and guile of the Blades would eventually tell.
OK, their winning goal certainly shouldn’t have stood, but there was a marked difference in overall quality, with the likes of James McAtee impressing enormously.
The defeat was frustrating but as a learning experience, it might well have been invaluable and once again, the attitude of the players on their return to the Stadium of Light was much improved.
After a win and a loss, Saturday’s grind of a draw against Luton completed the full house of possible results. The Hatters boast an impressive record away from Kenilworth Road and as the game unfolded and their organisation came to the fore, it was easy to see why.
Having weathered some early pressure and conceded sloppily, we turned up the wick, equalised through a penalty that shouldn’t have been awarded (poetic justice, you might say) and might well have won the game late on. Amad’s return to the team was marked with a goal and a lively performance, and Pierre Ekwah’s contribution was his best yet.
All things considered, and given the trepidation we felt before these fixtures, we’ve emerged fairly well with the players looking rejuvenated and Mowbray rediscovering some of the mojo that was the hallmark of his early months at the club.
For much of the season, we’ve praised the players for their commitment, their will to win and the way in which they’ve found their way into the affections of the fans.
It was absolutely vital, therefore, that results such as Stoke didn’t become habitual, and you can bet that the likes of Danny Batth and Luke O’Nien were at the forefront as the squad got themselves back on an even keel.
Now that the league campaign has paused for the international break, it’s a chance for everyone to take stock, recharge, and prepare ourselves for the final eight games of the season.
When we resume against Burnley, Mowbray will hopefully decide to rotate his starting eleven and offer more game time to his wider squad players. This could mean chances for the likes of Jewison Bennette, Isaac Lihadji and more opportunities for Ekwah. Perhaps with one eye on next season, it’s a wonderful opportunity for them to stake a claim for 2023/2024.
The Championship schedule is merciless and you could argue that it caught up with us during the month of March, but you can’t fault the ability of the players to ride out spells of bad form and emerge stronger for the experience.
It’s yet more evidence of the club’s new ethos, and it’s exactly what a Sunderland team should represent.