One year on from Sunderland's lowest ebb - the latest Bristol Rovers trip underlines this key change
The post-match reaction was telling.
Phil Parkinson gave a short press conference, while no Sunderland players emerged from the dressing room.
This was the club’s lowest ebb in League One.
Parkinson had just watched his side comprehensively out-played and out-fought by a Bristol Rovers side who weren’t exactly pulling up trees in the third tier.
The 2-0 defeat bookended a poor run of form which had also seen Sunderland lose a crucial game at Coventry City. It was a run that would ultimately cost the side when the season was decided on a points-per-game basis.
The mood among the fanbase was at a new low, with optimism difficult to find in any chasm of the club - whether on or off the field.
On the field, the side were struggling for form and playing a fairly turgid style of football. Off the pitch, fans had called for a change and Stewart Donald was looking to sell.
Things could only get better.
But this was Bristol Rovers, March 2020.
One year on, in March 2021, and the mood couldn’t be further from that lowly day twelve months ago.
Optimism is high after another win, with Sunderland creeping closer to the top two.
If the defeat at Bristol Rovers last term signified the end of a promotion push, this year’s trip to the South West reinforced the belief that the Black Cats are now every bit genuine promotion contenders.
This game was far from a classic. It was scrappy, large spells were played in the air and there was little real quality on show.
But Sunderland are finding a way to win. Even when the performance levels aren’t as high as they have been, even when the opposition are piling on the pressure, the Black Cats are riding out the storm and securing the three points.
That certainly wasn’t the case a year ago.
A year ago, Sunderland were a world away from being promotion contenders. Now, they are the form side in League One and entrenched in a battle for the top two.
The mood is now one of optimism, of ambition and of pride in the team.
Long may that continue.