Plenty of reasons to be cheerful at Sunderland right now

Graeme Atkinson looks back at the highlights of the season so far

Autumn has arrived and October is approaching quickly. As we reflect on the early moments of the campaign, aside from a general sense of positivity across Wearside, what are the highlights thus far?

Well, dust down the magic carpet. Give it a quick Febreze. We’re off on another ride it seems. After seeing off Bolton Wanderers 1-0 at the Stadium of Light, that’s five home wins on the bounce. Eight matches played and only one defeat and one draw.

Wearside is certainly in buoyant mood.

It’s the sort of feeling that only surfaces with regular victories. As a fan base this moment is richly deserved. Savour it.

You sense, this time, there’s a little bit more to it than just regular victories though, as great as that would be in isolation. There’s a lot to feel happy about as a Sunderland supporter right now.

The Rebuild

In many ways Sunderland has started again from ground zero. The foundations of the club have been rebuilt over the last six months or so and it appears all the cowboy builders were kicked into touch. Spirits have lifted massively as a result. At this moment Premier League football is physically no closer now than it was in 2018/19. Yet, the new infrastructure has removed the metaphorical ceiling and the trajectory of the club looks to be aiming infinitely upwards.

Within this new nurturing embrace the club finds itself in, optimism oozes from the banks of the river Wear.

For balance, the Madrox contingent is still sitting in the wings like Waldorf and Statler (they are Muppets after all). That has an uneasy feel. But, as they are tacitly connected with the rebuild, they’re likely to be the sort of figurative workmen who remain in the van. They’ll read the paper of course while others go about the real graft. However, don’t be surprised if they try and take the credit at the end of the job.

A lot has already been written about the structural set up behind the scenes at the club. There’s little point in going into detail again but suffice to say it feels modern, dynamic and well thought through. Each ‘performance domain’ complements each other and everyone appears to be working towards a common goal, confident in their own ability and unwilling to make rash decisions against external pressures. The summer’s methodically paced recruitment is testament to that.

These domains could still be described as being in embryonic form. So, once they’re fully embedded the club can hopefully kick on again. As an example, the data analysis team is still setting up their systems and ‘establishing the fundamentals’ according to the Black Cats’ Head of Data and Analysis, James Young, recently.

Ultimately, as a supporter, these ‘back office’ processes are judged by what happens on the pitch. To that end, whilst there is a lot of football still yet to play, the early signs are very promising indeed.

Style of Play

This leads us nicely to the team’s style of play. Let’s give Lee Johnson credit here. He won’t lose the ‘streaky Lee’ moniker until sufficient positive results prove otherwise. Let’s not forget he steered Bristol City to nine wins in a row in 2018-19. Outstanding, had eight successive defeats not preceded it.

Yet, if we’re judging purely on performances and results in the here and now he must be applauded. Johnson’s side is young, quick and hungry. It passes the ball in a manner that is easy on the eye and is no longer the one trick pony it was in recent seasons. All of this in less than a year and during a global pandemic.

The club promised that the attacking style of play glimpsed during last season’s play-off defeat would be the blueprint going forward. To that end Johnson has delivered and arguably, in a relatively short time, taken it even further. All helped by the fact the players were recruited by Kristjaan Speakman et al, in the particular image described above.

The Players

Finally, this brings us on to the players themselves. For all the plaudits some of the summer recruits are receiving it’s those already at Sunderland who surprised us most. Tom Flanagan, Dan Neil, Ross Stewart, Elliot Embleton and Carl Winchester have been superb. Yes, Winchester only signed in January as a midfielder but I don’t think anyone expected his meteoric rise to be the hero we all needed at right-back.

Indeed, Flanagan, written off by some, has shown this season he simply can’t be dropped on current form. Some times it’s just about partnerships, finding the right blend to perform at the heart of defence. We saw it with Nyron Nosworthy and Jonny Evans and here we are with the modern iteration in Flanagan and Callum Doyle.

Sunderland Ladies, unbeaten thus far, are sitting near the summit of their respective league too. Yes, when everything just feels right it makes supporting Sunderland feel rewarding again.

They say give without expectation of reward but the Law of Reciprocity owed us one.

Graeme Atkinson