If Adil Aouchiche was in any doubt as to how it feels to experience the sheer elation of a raucous Sunderland away end after another impressive away victory, the exciting French prospect certainly got his answer at Loftus Road on Saturday.
Introduced into the fray during the latter stages as we sought the third goal that would’ve made the game safe, he was clearly eager to impress, and that’s exactly what he did.
As he got to the byline and dinked the ball to the back post where Abdoullah Ba was waiting to bury the chance on the half-volley, Aouchiche wheeled away in celebration with his teammates, geeing up the thousands of travelling supporters behind the goal in the process.
The deadline-day signing from Lorient might've taken a step into the unknown by moving across the English Channel as he seeks to further his career, but he couldn’t have failed to have been struck by the fervent backing provided by a packed away end on Saturday.
Welcome to Sunderland AFC of 2023, Adil, a place where both players and supporters are truly on the same page and united in our shared desire to see this club restored to the top flight of English football.
As if the collective and individual talent of Tony Mowbray’s team wasn’t impressive enough, the strength of our team spirit, as demonstrated magnificently in the face of a roughhouse performance from the Hoops on Saturday, is growing with every game that passes.
Would we crumble in the face of a crude yet confrontational approach from Gareth Ainsworth’s players? No, we wouldn’t.
The young profile of our team has often led to questions about our ability to stand strong when things get testy, but after seeing off Ainsworth’s team with a second half performance of real verve, superb game management and no small amount of resilience, this could be marked down as a major test passed.
Many of our players are really starting to shine as we’ve started to build momentum after a somewhat indifferent start to the season.
Dan Ballard seems to grow in stature with every game he plays, Trai Hume is back to his swaggering, enterprising best, Jack Clarke is continuing to evolve at a rapid rate, and the introduction of Alex Pritchard for the injured Pierre Ekwah merely added a sprinkling of guile and composure- something that played a huge role in our eventual 3-1 victory.
As always, it’s important not to dwell too much on one result or performance, but to step back and view this in a wider context.
What’s currently being built at the Stadium of Light isn’t some kind of ‘hit and hope’ exercise in recruitment, and nor are we of the belief that from this cosmopolitan mixture of footballers, a squad capable of promotion will magically emerge.
In the West London sunshine on Saturday, the deadline day losses of Ross Stewart, Danny Batth and Lynden Gooch didn't seem to rankle anywhere near as much, for as admired as those lads were, their teammates now have a chance to acquire the same heroic status and continue to drive us forward.
There is genuine rhyme and reason to our recruitment, and with the players he’s being given, Mowbray is fashioning a squad that’s as exciting, tactically fluid, and unified as any you could think of from our recent history.
If a player drops out, someone else steps in and provides cover, and if one of the lads isn’t quite at his best in a particular game, he’s backed and encouraged to keep going, instead of being discarded and potentially set back in his development.
This was certainly the case with Ba on Saturday, who didn’t always find it easy against QPR but refused to let his head drop and eventually got his reward. Even Luis Hemir, who’s still finding his way in English football, is firmly cemented in the fans’ affections, and that must make him feel incredibly positive as he seeks to establish himself in the team.
And yet, despite the justified positivity, we know it won’t always be easy.
A stroll in the sunshine against Southampton was followed by a much tougher assignment when the league campaign resumed, but in recent times, I’ve rarely had as much faith in our ability to adapt to different opponents and types of games as I do now.
Setbacks will happen but when they do, the players and coaches will hold their nerve and emerge on the other side, doubtless stronger and wiser for the experience- just as they did after losing to Ipswich, Crewe, and Preston.
Even if we’re still prone to panicking every now and then as supporters, there’s no inclination to do that where it really counts- on the pitch and in the dressing room- and that’s all that matters.
As we see every time they gather for a training session or a match, Mowbray believes in the players, and they clearly believe in him, as well as in each other. Tomorrow night’s trip to Blackburn will be another challenge, but there’s no team in this league that we should fear, under any circumstances.
There’s a red and white brotherhood being built on the banks of the Wear nowadays, and although we don’t know where the journey will end or how long it might take, it really does feel as though it’s going to be a thoroughly unforgettable ride over the coming seasons.