Sitting at half-time reflecting on being at 1-1 in The Emirates felt good. It felt like we were playing better than them, off the back of two wins and two clean sheets. We’d be middle of the table by Christmas, man. No sweat. Piece of the proverbial cake.
You see there’s a clear structure and plan in Sunderland’s displays of late. After proper ages of banging on about having no identity, philosophy, ideology.Whatever buzz word you want to call it, Sunderland have had none of it.
Yet while there’s obvious truth in that, we’ve spoken about it on the pod tirelessly after all, I’ve always maintained that simply getting recruitment right in one transfer window is underrated. I don’t mean recruitment as in some Moneyball themed secret formula that’s the envy of all – just sign three of the right kind of players to fit your club.
People overlook how much sides like Stoke City spend to sit mid-table, they overlook the erratic way in which Saturday’s opponents Watford have somehow managed to cobble together a steady looking side, despite what seems like hundreds of players and managers going in and out. It’s all about being Swansea or being Southampton and teaching the rest of the country how to be patient and build a side from the bottom.
There’s all this daft talk of willingly getting relegated and starting again. It’s daft talk. It is.
No matter how unsteady, a side that’s stayed in the Premier League for nine seasons has a platform on which to build.
Swansea have been in the Premier League five minutes yet the guy who was England’s next manager is on the scrap heap cos they’ve went on a bad run – despite avoiding the bottom three all season.
We’re always reminded as Sunderland fans that we should be grateful for where we are and to not get too carried away, why does that hardly get questioned here?
Laudrup left them when in a half-decent position too.
So while they have the player recruitment seemingly nailed, they’ve no worries about getting rid of managers at the first tiny sign of stagnation. It’s proof that if you have at least one of these things right you have a chance.
I think in Gus Poyet and Dick Advocaat, we had decent managers. I really do. But the recruitment was awful. Really awful for too long. If both managers had signed the right players to suit their respective systems then I don’t think there’d have been a mighty struggle for Sunderland to stay in the league.
But, and blame whoever you want, they didn’t get recruitment right. And it has been the mightiest of mighty struggles to stay up.
The last three games have proved Big Sam looks to have found a system that fits this squad and there’s a clear identity starting to emerge. Of course the systems have changed because of injuries, but five at the back has solved so many issues just on its own and regardless of who goes where in midfield and attack, this is a side that looks like it knows its limitations and is finally comfortable with what it is.
That’s huge for me. Now what we need is this recruitment to improve. It would be foolish to suggest Allardyce can’t fail in the transfer market, but you can bet there won’t be many thoughtless signings coming in. The team-building will be designed to fit what we have now. Poyet was in a similar situation after the great escape but we saw it unravel when poor players came in. Or the wrong players.
It can’t happen again. There can be be no Ricardo Alvarezes or Will Buckleys.
Back to that Arsenal game and we ended up losing after all, while Bournemouth and Newcastle got themselves unlikely wins. Yet the positive outlook hasn’t ceased much when I look around at Sunderland fans. We’ve not had that in a while. It’s a strange one that. We’re suddenly second bottom but people are seemingly drinking their Double Maxims with the pint very much half full.
Maybe it’s because when they look at sides like Newcastle and Villa, they see the Sunderland pre-Allardyce that didn’t have a clue what it was; rendering signing decent players pointless if all you can do is shoe-horn them in and watch them produce the odd good result.
Maybe it’s cos when they look at sides like Bournemouth and Norwich, they see sides who do know exactly what they are but with very limited quality and squad size.
We’ll be alreet man. We will.
Unless we lose tomorrow and we’ll be doomed again.
*This piece was originally written for and published by The Durham Times.