When Sunderland stumbled to a dismal 0-1 home defeat at home to an injury-hit Hull City in mid-January, it felt as though both our season and Michael Beale’s fledgling reign as head coach were in real danger of turning sour.
Results and performances under Beale had already been patchy, defeats at the hands of Ipswich in the league and Newcastle in the FA Cup had dealt us two significant blows, and the fact that we barely laid a glove on the Tigers set alarm bells ringing in most quarters.
Was the experiment with Beale doomed to fail? Were things heading for the rocks despite having plenty of games left to play? The questions were uncomfortable and the excitement seemed to have been replaced by familiar feelings of worry and disillusionment.
A major turnaround at that stage felt highly unlikely, but we all know that the fortunes of football can change like the wind, and victories over Stoke and Plymouth, either side of a gritty draw against Middlesbrough, have lifted spirits and gifted Beale some breathing space.
If Sunderland’s 2022/2023 season was the debut album by a young, slightly naive and enthusiastic bunch of players, the current campaign has been the ‘difficult second’, a hit and miss LP comprised of a smattering of mediocre efforts alongside some brilliant cuts, with a seasoned producer replaced midway through the recording process by an up and comer with his own ideas.
For every Southampton at home, there was a Rotherham away, and for every Blackburn away, there was a Huddersfield at home. To that end, we’ve often been a ‘red or black’, either/or kind of team, with no real middle ground.
Throw in a change of head coach, Alex Pritchard’s departure, ongoing transfer rumours surrounding many of our key players, and a multitude of off-field problems and criticism of the owners (plenty of it deserved), and 2023/2024 has demanded more from everyone that we might’ve anticipated.
And yet, with fifteen games left, a glance at the league table offers far more encouragement than many of us perhaps could’ve hoped for.
With forty seven points on the board, we’re twenty two shy of last season’s final total, and given that the next three fixtures seem to have fallen favourably, there’s every chance that our top six credentials will look stronger than ever by the time we make the trip to Carrow Road in early March.
‘Close but sometimes not close enough’ has been the story of much of our season.
After a slowish start, we’ve generally been there or thereabouts despite our inconsistent form, but our habit of dropping points in irritatingly sloppy fashion hasn't yet been eradicated and the exact strength of our squad remains a hot topic.
As for Beale? He slowly seems to be getting a handle on the job and although there remains a multitude of questions about his tactical approach, recent results (if not ninety minute performances) are providing flashes of promise and the second half turnaround on Saturday was key.
You could argue that we still lack a genuine identity under the former Rangers boss, and that the football isn’t as aesthetically pleasing as it was under Tony Mowbray, but on the other hand, it’s also led to us becoming slightly more direct and purposeful in attack.
Nazariy Rusyn, so often a peripheral figure under Mowbray, is now looking like a real asset up front, and two recent goals for Pierre Ekwah will doubtless have given his confidence a boost after a stop start season so far.
At the back, the addition of Leo Hjelde, as well as Trai Hume’s ongoing improvement and the ever more impressive partnership between Dan Ballard and Luke O’Nien can hopefully give us a solid platform for the big games to come.
It’s fair to say that some fans might find themselves caught in a dilemma when it comes to supporting Beale.
Indeed, there have been times when it’s felt like a case of backing the Lads despite what the head coach was telling them to do, and some of his comments in the media have been clumsy, something he’s clearly been at pains to make amends for.
However, results are his most precious commodity and judging by the applause four minutes into Saturday’s game, in honour of his niece, there does seem to be more goodwill for him than there was a few short weeks ago, and rightly so, after he was subjected to some appalling criticism that went way beyond anything related to football.
There’s also a strong argument that the up and down nature of this season has been crucial for the ongoing development of our players.
After the elation of 2022/2023, during which an unexpected playoff charge was mounted and the players went about their business with admirable freedom, this season has doubtless asked more questions of them than they might’ve expected.
However, they’ve matured impressively, they’ve often responded strongly in the face of adversity, and the likes of Jack Clarke and Dan Neil have offered plenty of proof that they’re destined for the Premier League, whether that’s with Sunderland or following big money moves to the top flight.
These lads are slowly evolving from talented prodigies to quality operators who deliver on a weekly basis, and their attitude and application has generally been spot on.
For all of its turbulence, frustration and rancour, the 2023/2024 season remains alive and kicking for Sunderland.
The race for the playoffs will certainly heat up during the coming weeks, with at least six teams vying for two remaining spots, but with renewed belief from the supporters, players starting to build up their form and Beale able to pick from a deeper squad, we’re firmly embedded among the hopefuls and at this stage, that’s a very decent position to be in.