Seven days ago, things looked bleak. The bitter taste of last season lingered on the pallet. It was a new term, but there was a concerning sense of déjà vu.
As Jack Ross gave his dejected post-match thoughts at Portman Road following yet another 1-1 draw, time looked against him. There stood a man who knew if changes weren’t made quickly, and results didn’t follow, his spell at Sunderland would be up.
His side did him no favours either. Denver Hume – hauled off at half-time – was the one to bite the bullet, but it could have been anyone in red and white. Jordan Willis looked lost, Conor McLaughlin no better, and up top, Marc McNulty abandoned to fend for himself against two towering centre-backs.
Was it not for Ipswich Town’s inefficiencies at both ends, it could have been a humiliating afternoon in Suffolk, with the upcoming potential banana skin trip to Accrington Stanley only adding to the early-season woe.
As it was, a much-changed Sunderland side entered that game at the Wham Stadium still unbeaten; but knowing that only victory in 90 minutes would suffice. Not only to avoid putting any unnecessary miles in the players’ legs, which proved so costly at the back end of last year, but also with one eye on the visit of Portsmouth at the weekend.
Had the Carabao Cup tie not ended in a relatively convincing success and provided confidence-building moments for some of those greatly lacking, Pompey would have turned up a different beast on Saturday.
But they came with the same air of caution they did in April, fresh off the back of their own patchy start to the campaign and knowing the Black Cats would be raring to pounce.
However, as Portsmouth new-boy Marcus Harness took advantage of another Sunderland defensive mix-up – one which looked achingly similar to Oxford United’s gift on the opening day – it coughed up a moment which could have defined the season.
Had Willis not provided an almost instantaneous reply, that niggle of self-doubt among Ross and the Sunderland ranks could have spread and grown to insurmountable proportions.
A lot could be said of the centre-back’s celebration, too – or lack of. There he was, expertly latching onto Grant Leadbitter’s pin-point corner to level things up in arguably his side’s most testing home game of the year, and as he climbed back to his feet, he seemed happy to take the plaudits from his team-mates and move on.
Overcome by relief, maybe? Whatever it was certainly served Willis well for the remainder of the 90 minutes as he put in a man-of-the-match showing – a far-flung performance to that of his first two league outings.
And that was the same story across the field. There was finally evidence of a team clicking.
Aiden McGeady’s drive down the left before playing a delicious low cross for Chris Maguire to tap home the winner after a clever run hinted they’re on the same page once again.
Alim Ozturk – harshly left out at the beginning of the season – looked assured. Of course, he has his limitations, but alongside Willis, the Dutch-born Turk provided far greater stability compared to that of Tom Flanagan’s often dangerously absent defensive showings of late.
The partnership of Max Power and Leadbitter offered everything you’d want out of your midfield pairing in a big game
Charlie Wyke’s introduction following McNulty’s departure after picking up a hamstring problem offered even more confidence. The hard-working target man had fight, determination, movement, accurate link-up play – all he was missing was a goal. And he deserved one, really.
But it was the middle of the park where the biggest difference showed. The partnership of Max Power and Leadbitter offered everything you’d want out of your midfield pairing in a big game.
Their passing was accurate, defensive work outstanding and both played an imperative role in what could turn out to be an exceptionally important afternoon for the club.
Overall, Saturday’s win over Portsmouth is not one that will get us to our end goal; promotion. And it’s important not to get carried away – five points from three games still isn’t usually good enough to get you out of this division.
But with a convincing win over a promotion rival, a draw away to another, a place in the next round of the cup secured, and the chance to change the entire complexion of the season with another three points against Rochdale on Tuesday night, things look very different to just seven days ago.
The knuckle-dragging negativity shown by some is on the verge of being replaced by a sense of optimism. And it’s great to see.
What a difference a week makes.