WE here at Wise Men Say Towers have had many debates about the relevance of fixture lists in the last couple of years.
There always seems to be this lingering frustration that we never quite get a reasonable run of games early in the season.
One side of the argument is clear – you play every team twice and the running order is immaterial.
The other is that by the time you get to the “reasonable run of games” your downwards spiral has picked up so much momentum that your players are devoid of confidence and will likely struggle anyway. That was certainly true of last season.
But then remember that remarkable run that that kept us up? As if you could forget. There was no build-up of upwards momentum that helped generate it; going a goal down inside five minutes at Man City on the back of five straight league defeats is very much the opposite of that.
What happened next defied logic, really.
In fact, it’s hard to judge where Sunderland are as a side based on anything from last season at all.
Which was the true Sunderland?
The one that seemed uninspired in many winnable home games, or the one that swept all aside to stay up? We don’t know. And that frustrating ambiguity has transferred over into this campaign too.
We could blame the fixtures again. A lot of other teams have been handed kinder fixtures in their opening three home games, after all.
Whatever it is, we’re still waiting to see what distinctive progression we’ve made.
Now we have made some, clearly. What’s been evident is the improvement defensively. We’ve been hard to beat – a fact obvious in the league season stats thus far: played six, lost one.
But we aren’t winning either.
What would be ideal is a home game against somebody very beatable to help us build on a very encouraging performance against Swansea City last weekend.
An opposition who you feel that Will Buckey, Adam Johnson and Ricky Alvarez can run continue to run at.
A game that Jack Rodwell can finally try and stamp his authority onto and be real the difference on the day.
An opposition who won’t be expected to come and overrun us for large parts of the game.
Opponents that don’t really scare you.
Could this finally be the one?
Now Stoke are a very decent side; they’re an established middtable Premier League club so they should be. But Sunderland are an established Premier League club too.
And this is a home game.
A winnable home game that isn’t on the back of some hellish awful run of bad results.
Gus Poyet was buoyant after last weekend’s draw with Swansea and claimed he was looking forward to being on the training ground very much this week. He clearly feels he’s stumbled across a system that works now; one that is fluid yet aggressive.
The signs were there for all to see. On top of this, and with all respect, if he was presented with a fixture list and asked to hand-pick a game out then this one would be high(ish) on the list.
I’ll reiterate that Stoke are a good team. In fact, they’ve yet to lose in the league on the road this season. They’re often a target for many to belittle, but I have nothing but admiration for the way Mark Hughes has managed to raise the bar post-Pulis.
Yet they’re yet to win on Wearside in the Premier League, and if we’re to be convinced that a comfortable campaign lies ahead then a routine-looking home win would be very much welcomed by us all tomorrow.
But then Sunderland don’t do things routinely. At least we can’t blame the fixtures any more.
H The Wise Men Say podcast is available from every Monday, with SAFC debate from a variety of guests and post-match reaction from Gus Poyet. You can be stream it direct from wisemensay.co.uk or subscribe to it on iTunes.