Last Saturday it felt as if Sunderland had been caught cold.
After dismantling Scunthorpe United and picking up two impressive, hard-fought wins on the road, there was an expectancy around Jack Ross’s side.
The game almost got away from them in a wild opening 20 minutes. Jack Ross understandably took pride in his team’s resilience but he was also aware that the end result could have been very different.
It was the fourth time in six league games that they have gone behind.
The Black Cats boss has dismissed talk of a recurring problem, though he was concerned enough to ask his players if there was an issue with preparation.
They said not.
Perhaps Oxford United’s approach had taken them a touch by surprise.
Their energy on the pitch was matched only by their staff in the dug-out, officials harangued at every decision by Karl Robinson and his team.
There should be no surprises when Fleetwood Town visit the Stadium of Light. From players to manager, they have been bullish in their pre-match talk, taking the plucky underdog narrative to its extreme. Sunderland will hope that pride comes before a fall.
Jack Ross has been typically dismissive of the noise surrounding Joey Barton’s arrival on Wearside but he will know that it could add spice to the game and the atmosphere.
He hopes that last weekend’s experience will prove to be helpful.
“When the dust settled on it [Oxford game] initially we had that disappointment with aspects of the performance but then also the feeling of how resilient we’d been.” he said.
“I think the players recognise that it was beneficial in that it was very different to the previous home game against Scunthorpe.
“It’s difficult to say with certainty how each team will approach it.
“There’s two ways of going about it [for the opposition].
“You can either get on the front foot and almost make it like a cup tie or you can sit right off, and we’ve seen examples of both already this season.
“We have to make sure we’re not spooked by it, I’ve said it before that it’s hard for teams to maintain that intensity for 90 minutes, so if you can be resilient in that period then the game will settle. I think a lot of the players had the understanding of that, there were no excuses, but they’ll be better prepared for it next time.
“We had a chat after the Oxford game and really, it was about them having the chance to voice any concerns they’ve got in that respect, in terms of how we’re preparing,” he added.
“The good thing was that they said ‘no, there’s no excuses’. And we haven’t started poorly in every game, against Oxford we did but there have been others games where we have started OK and then just conceded.
“I think it is still just an adjustment, obviously I wasn’t here but I’d imagine in the Championship you have that opening period where you have a bit of sparring, feeling each other out.
“At the moment for us the first whistle goes and all hell breaks loose. We’re still adjusting to that.
“If there were concerns about our preparation, I think the players know that my staff and I would take on board. Clearly it would be nice to go ahead in games, I think we know that help us because that stretches the game a little bit.”
Barton, like Ross, has made an impressive start as a manager.
He has, unsurprisingly, made reference to the disparity in the two club’s budgets (he won’t be the last) before the game but he has been backed by his chairman and brought in talented players.
His exploits are being captured by an access-all-areas documentary, the former midfielder seemingly more comfortable in the spotlight than Ross has been as Netflix film their Sunderland equivalent.
Ross will not be drawn into any touchline drama but he knows it could have an impact.
“From my point of view, Joey being manager doesn’t make any difference,” said.
“Like any opposition manager, and I’d be the same, I’m sure he looking forward to coming here to this stadium because the incentive is to take that scalp.
“It’ll heighten the atmosphere but that’s been very good this season anyway.
“I can sense from my players that they’re looking forward to it, I don’t think last Saturday has dented their confidence about playing at home at all, quite the contrary given the way the fans have stuck with them.
“Joey obviously has a lot of self-confidence and he’s made an encouraging start there.
“And for me, I talk a lot about new challenges, coming up against different managers has been enjoyable because they all conduct themselves differently.
“In Scotland you reach a stage where you know what’s coming but I don’t have that down here, which is interesting because often the way they are has in impact on their team.”
After last weekend’s scare, Ross will hope his side mirror his calm demeanour.