When Sunderland trudged off disconsolantly after the 1-5 hammering against Stoke City at the beginning of March, the questions and the recriminations were almost as uncomfortable as the sight of Alex Neil celebrating like he’d won the lottery.
What effect would such a hammering have on the players’ morale? How could we possibly begin the rebuilding process given the fixtures that lay ahead, and would the optimism give way to pessimism and the possibility of the campaign ending on a sour note?
One month on, however, it’s safe to say that far from derailing our season, the loss has galvanised everyone, players and Tony Mowbray alike, and recent results back that up.
The fixtures that followed seemed to be daunting, but the way we’ve navigated our way through them and emerged with some creditable results has offered further proof that we truly are on a new path.
The trip to Carrow Road saw the Lads eke out an impressive 0-1 victory over Norwich on the back of an industrious display and a well taken goal from Abdoullah Ba, and even the subsequent midweek loss to Sheffield United didn’t feel like a huge blow, such was the improvement in our overall demeanour and application.
That game was followed by a gritty draw against Luton which sent us into the international break on an even keel and with a chance to regroup and gear ourselves up for another tough game at Turf Moor.
What we’ve learned in recent weeks is that this Sunderland team has far more about it than mere creativity, youthful exuberance and attacking flair.
It’s also blessed with heart by the bucketload, resilience in abundance, and an ability to respond when faced with tough challenges. The players clearly understood that being part of our heaviest ever defeat at the Stadium of Light wasn’t acceptable, and that only they could put it right.
Much is made of a supposed leadership deficit within our ranks, but as Danny Batth, Luke O’Nien, Alex Pritchard and even Lynden Gooch have demonstrated, this is not a completely callow and naive team. Examples are being set by the senior pros, and the sense of togetherness is there for all to see.
Despite heading into the international break on the back of a good point against the Hatters, there was still an argument that the remaining games were meaningless and that January’s transfer window had extinguished any enthusiasm for the remainder of the campaign.
In reality, that simply wasn’t true.
The idea that the season was ‘dead’ and that we’d simply meander through the remaining games as if having a kickabout on an Ibizan beach never stacked up.
After all, we didn’t spend four years trudging through the League One swamp only to write off our first Championship campaign with eight games left, and against Burnley on Friday, the players showed exactly how much they’ve still got to play for.
At Turf Moor, the lads ran themselves into the ground and showed exactly the kind of attitude that needs to be carried over into 2023/2024 if we’re to continue to make genuine progress.
They tackled relentlessly, worked immensely hard both with and without the ball, and emptied the tank in pursuit of what eventually turned out to be an excellent point.
Burnley were as competitive and as efficient in possession as you’d have expected them to be, but they couldn’t break us down and the immensely classy Vincent Kompany was complimentary about our efforts afterwards, as his side took another step towards promotion.
Anthony Patterson became the first visiting goalkeeper since Manchester City’s Ederson to prevent the Clarets from scoring at home, and Kompany was gracious enough to accept that we had a very clear game plan on Friday, one that was executed very well.
So, was it an empty exercise? Did it have the down tempo feel of a testimonial?
Try telling the hordes of red and white-clad supporters, whose vocal backing never ceased, that the game was a dead rubber. They embraced the challenge, as did the players and frankly, it turned out that there was very little to fear, despite Burnley’s fearsome reputation.
The bottom line is that Premier League promotion is only going to be achieved by going through such experiences, using them as a means of improvement, and ensuring that any setbacks are filed away for future knowledge.
Next season, our sights will be raised and the players will be wiser to the ups and downs of this league and more adaptable. Elevation to the top flight won’t be easy and nor should it be, but results of the kind we saw on Friday can only give this young squad a massive shot of confidence for the future.