If a group of people were asked to come up with an image to personify the early 2010’s, most would probably choose a cheap, white t-shirt with a printing of Rihanna on the front and a pair of chinos.
While this is undoubtedly the most toe-curling reminder of 2011/12 fashion trends, ‘keep calm and carry on’ t-shirts are a close second.
‘Keep calm and carry on’, was a well-meaning slogan adopted at the beginning of the Second World War, but almost 70 years on, it appeared that everything had to be undertaken with the utmost calm.
Whether it was drinking tea, travelling, or shopping you absolutely had to keep on doing it but on the condition that you were not flustered while you did it.
The slogan may have featured a slightly corny present that you bought for your mam on Mothers’ Day, but it holds a fair amount of significance as Sunderland enter their final eight games of the season.
It goes without saying that every game will feel like the biggest of the season so far, until of course the next fixture rolls around, which will feel even bigger than the last.
Not only will every Sunderland goal be greeted with increased excitement, but every goal conceded by our promotion rivals will feel equally as important.
Over the next few weeks, we are likely to experience moments where we feel that promotion is all but guaranteed whereas any dropped points will lead to people writing off our chances of going up automatically.
Despite this tension, I feel we are in a much better position to finish in the top two than in our two previous seasons at this level.
Remarkable Run Of Form
Firstly, our recent run of form is nothing short of remarkable, since we lost 2-1 to Shrewsbury in early February, we have gone 12 league games unbeaten, winning nine of them as well as lifting a trophy.
This run has been impressive on many levels, but the defining feature has been the sheer variety of ways we have found to come through this period unscathed.
The likes of Doncaster, Portsmouth and Burton Albion were emphatically dispatched, while we have overcome nervy encounters with Bristol Rovers, Fleetwood and Swindon and came from behind to beat an awkward Oxford side.
Even in our worst performance by some distance against Crewe we showed tremendous character to drag ourselves back into the game and even had a chance to win the game deep into stoppage time.
Strength In Depth
The last 12 matches have also proved beyond doubt that we have fantastic squad depth in comparison to other sides in this league.
In theory, this has been true for some time, but under Phil Parkinson and during the first couple of months of Johnson’s reign it was a point which was tough to argue, given our habit of losing silly games when we were on the cusp of putting good runs together.
Everybody has played their part recently, if we do go up, Chris Maguire is unlikely to go down as a key part of our campaign, but if it were not for his last gasp equaliser against Crewe or pinpoint delivery for Charlie Wyke’s winner versus Swindon, we would likely be four points worse off at this stage.
Our squad depth, adaptability and togetherness has also been more evident by the week and for much of our recent run of form, our back four has been made up of just one specialist centre half.
Our left back was playing for Guiseley just three years ago, our newly-converted centre half had already been converted into a right back after plying his trade as an attacking midfielder and our right back has played as a central midfielder throughout his career.
Despite all this uncertainty, we have kept seven clean sheets during our unbeaten run and conceded just six goals during that time.
As impressive as this is, our chances of maintaining this run will only increase as the likes of Denver Hume, Bailey Wright and Connor McLaughlin come back into the fold.
This defensive solidity provides Sunderland with a great platform for our attacking players to continue to flourish.
All About the Mentality
The mentality of the squad also appears to have improved considerably, when McGeady levelled things up against Peterborough, there was no sprinting to the corner flag or jumping on top of each other, there was just a sense of, ‘we’re back in this now, let’s go and win it!’
Unfortunately, this was not to be, but our mentality from the first kick to the last was to try and win the game.
If we carry this into our remaining fixtures, it will stand us in good stead and the lads will be all too aware that if we win our next two games, we will find ourselves in the top two with six games remaining.
We have broken several ‘typical Sunderland’ curses in the process, from that Wembley win, to finally beating Fleetwood and Burton Albion, overcoming Joey Barton and coming from behind to win games.
Hull and Peterborough may have recovered in recent games, but Hull have already lost double the number of games we have so far this season and recently The Posh had won just three in ten.
Rivals Are Right To Be Worried About Us
If I supported a promotion rival and saw Sunderland on the run we are on, with players returning from injury, a newly found resolve and will to win, our clean sheet record, the form of McGeady, Jordan Jones and the goal return of Charlie Wyke, I’d be feeling very worried.
Given all the heartache we’ve been through in recent years, I understand why people are nervous, to my irrational ‘Sunderland’ brain, each victory brings increased certainty that the following game will be the one where our fortunes revert to type.
But in recent weeks from the improved form of Lee Burge, to dealing with an injury crisis, to getting the job done when it matters to embracing a new, more adventurous style of football, the lads have shown a resilience and determination to get the job done.
The next four weeks are going to be torturous at times, but we can’t get carried away either positively or negatively.
The players and management have gone a long way to earning our trust in recent weeks and as a long-forgotten mug at the back of our cupboard will say, ‘keep calm and carry on getting promoted.’