Phil Smith's verdict: Sunderland drop off promotion pace but club's ten game progress is remarkable

There was a time when you wondered how long it would be before it felt like this again.

Sunday, 30th September 2018, 11:55 am
Updated Sunday, 30th September 2018, 12:02 pm
Nearly 5,000 fans filled the Ricoh Arena away end

The anticipation, the butterflies in the stomach.

Building through the week before hitting full force on Saturday morning.

Nearly 5,000 fans filled the Ricoh Arena away end

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The nerves, the excitement, the positive trepidation. The prospect of a day to slot into the cannon of memorable away trips.

Sunderland taking 5,000 fans away from home is nothing new in itself.

Even doing so for a lunchtime, televised kick-off, while remarkable, is nothing surprising.

Even in the darkest days they sold out away allocation after away allocation, but in forlorn hope rather than expectation. The sparks of light and ecstasy have been few and far between. 45 dizzying minutes here and there, at Crystal Palace, Derby County.

For the most part, however, the game itself has got in the way. The trust and bond between stand and pitch slowly severed.

Not so long ago, it felt semi-permanent.

So to be here, ten games in, a wall of noise, colour, and real hope, is something to relish.

After years of unfair focus on pink seats, empty seats, in front of a national audience it was clear to see. Sunderland are on their way back. To watch the Ricoh Arena's away end fill up before kick-off, the flailing limbs as Lee Cattermole, who epitomizes this renaissance better than anyone, roared in celebration, was exhilarating.

The football, it has to be said, fell well short of the buzz.

A wretched first half was disrupted by a spate of injuries and a relentless spate of niggling fouls.

Sunderland never got going and the tempo was bitterly disappointing.

The numbers are, without question, concerning.

Six points from their last five games is well short of promotion pace. Peterborough United and Portsmouth remain in touching distance but on this trend, they will soon open up a reasonable gap.

Sunderland were fortunate, too, not to throw away the point when Jon McLaughlin and Jack Baldwin bailed their team out with some last-gasp heroics.

There were mitigating factors for the Black Cats.

Their defensive shape was badly disjointed by those early injuries and for the last fifteen minutes they were essentially playing with ten men.

Aiden McGeady and Jerome Sinclair, two players capable of changing a game, had to be left on the bench.

That Sunderland actually came close to a winner on numerous occasions in this spell is credit to the character of the side and also some clever tactical switches by Jack Ross.

The nagging frustration is that too often their control of games is just lacking. The spells when they move the ball precisely and pen in their opponents, stretching the defence, are currently too short and too infrequent.

It was also concerning to see how much joy Coventry were able to get down the flanks in the second period, especially with two experienced campaigners operating in those areas.

Ross, however, was fulsome in his praise for his team after the game.

There was frustration at another game that ended without three points but it was clear that he felt this was an occasion where Sunderland could have wilted.

He was proud that they battled through and took something from the game.

19 points from ten games is the overall picture and that is not a return to be sniffed at.

The overhaul of the playing squad and an extensive injury list posed challenges and the Black Cats are still searching for fluidity. Ross still seems to be learning about his players, and his best combinations.

The win over Rochdale showed he is getting closer.

There is much to be done but the points haul shows the team have something vital, a resilience and a character.

That so many fans travelled in such numbers and with such hope and buoyancy is testament to that. The reception that the players, and Cattermole in particular, received at the end, showed a trust and a bond.

This day couldn't quite reach the heights that seemed so tantalising beforehand, but there is still time for that.

A platform is there, if Sunderland can quickly build on it.