The complete verdict on Sunderland's January business as late Will Grigg swoop lifts the mood
On New Year’s Day Sunderland took nearly 8,000 fans to Blackpool.
They won 1-0, played well and put themselves in an excellent position in the promotion race.
The question for Jack Ross and the supporters was whether the January window could boost that momentum building at the club.
It has been a fraught month, dominated by the Josh Maja saga but with plenty of other business going through.
So are Sunderland stronger as they head into the final months of the campaign?
A decent debut from Jimmy Dunne in a difficult game at Scunthorpe suggested that Sunderland have made a necessary improvement at the heart of the defence.
After the summer window shut Ross identified a lack of a natural left footer on that side of the defence as a weakness in his squad.
While Tom Flanagan and Jack Baldwin held the fort manfully, it had also become clear Sunderland were suffering from a lack of height in both boxes.
Dunne more than compensates for that and in the coming weeks should allow Baldwin to play on his more natural side.
The Irishman is unproven at League One level and so brings no guarantee of success, though it was a signing Ross and his staff were keen to make after glowing references from contacts north of the border.
So far, it is encouraging that Dunne has stepped up a level with every move in his career and thrived.
Elsewhere, cover at right-back would have been ideal but Luke O’Nien’s form there at least means the Black Cats are not overly dependent on Adam Matthews.
From a financial perspective, the failure to offload Bryan Oviedo will have come as a late blow.
The Sunderland boss clearly feels Reece James is better suited to League One football and he has a huge amount of faith in Denver Hume as the youngsters returns from injury.
Oviedo faces a battle to earn a place and it will be interesting to see if Ross repeats his experiment of try to get the most out of the Costa Rican’s attacking quality by playing him as an occasional winger.
At the start of the window the convention wisdom was that if Sunderland went into the market for a central midfielder, they needed a tall and physical player.
Grant Leadbitter is certainly not that but he is an excellent option to call on upon in what will inevitably be a tense end to the season.
Two excellent performances against Sunderland last season showed that Leadbitter has the experience and quality to control games at Championship level, never mind the third tier.
In a team often guilty of forcing the issue too much in possession, his poise will make a big difference.
Throw into the mix his affection for the club and his determination to get them back up, and it looks an inspired signing.
With George Honeyman finally set to return from injury, there is real competition in a vital area of the pitch. Ross will be pleased with his options.
Sunderland’s options just off the main striker was one of the driving forces of their good form in the early part of winter.
Both Chris Maguire and Lynden Gooch started the season in sparkling form, producing regular goals and assists.
The return of Aiden McGeady added extra impetus but in recent weeks all three have struggled to make a consistent contribution.
A trio of disappointing draws in the league underlined the feeling that something had to change.
The arrival of Lewis Morgan is an eye-catching bonus to the window. He and Ross worked together spectacularly well at St Mirren last season and there looked to be little prospect of a deal either in the summer or at the start of this window.
Celtic’s sluggish start to the season changed the picture, with Brendan Rodgers going for Timothy Weah and Oliver Burke, pushing Morgan down the pecking order.
Versatile and direct, he is the perfect Ross player, as these quotes from the Black Cats boss last season reflect.
“He’s immensely two-footed to his credit,” he said.
“He has a stronger side but it’s impossible to tell. He can take corners with either foot and that’s a rarity.
“He’s aerobically fit, great technically and probably moves quicker with the ball than without."
It’s also worth noting that January saw Luke O’Nien continue his good form, albeit at right-back.
Ross believes the confidence that has given him will be vital when he moves him further up the pitch in coming weeks.
Between his form and the arrival of Morgan, Ross has the options he needed to shake things up in this part of the pitch.
As Jerome Sinclair sealed a deadline day move to Oxford United, there would have been considerable concern as to whether Sunderland would get the business they badly needed done.
January is the hardest time to recruit players and there is nothing tougher than signing strikers.
At close of play it seems that it will be Sinclair and Josh Maja out, Kazaiah Sterling and Will Grigg in.
Does that leave Sunderland’s striking options better than before?
Sterling is an unknown quantity.
The player clearly has rich potential and it is a positive reflection of his abilities that he has spent so much time around Mauricio’s Pochettino’s senior set up.
How he will cope with the pressure of first team football remains to be seen and too much should not be expected of someone on their first loan stint.
What he should offer is a touch of unpredictability and energy.
Crucially, he seems to have that directness that Ross likes and genuine pace to stretch the game.
It seems a gamble worth taking now that he has the proven player he needs in Grigg.
While it is undoubtedly a significant transfer for the club financially, Sunderland are getting a player who has thrived at his level and won three promotions.
Especially at home, that ‘poacher’ will be key and it is something Ross was determined to land.
Replacing Josh Maja, who has been remarkably clinical this season (scoring with over 70% of his shots on target), was always going to be a tall order.
It is has proved to be an expensive business but that will seem like money well spent if Sunderland can continue their momentum and seal promotion in the summer.
Debate will rage over the fee paid for Grigg and the lengthy delay in getting a deal done.
What is unquestionable is that should he sign, the Northern Irishman is one of the few players available this month who could come anywhere close to matching Josh Maja’s goal threat.
In Grigg Sunderland will be landing arguably the best League One striker in the last five years or so.
Most importantly, they will be landing the profile of striker that Ross is so keen to bring in.
An orthodox forward, a clinical finisher and someone who will thrive on the pressure of leading the line.
A lack of outgoings means Sunderland have invested in January and added an extra option in just about every department.
Promotion will take an enormous amount of work, but the Black Cats have put themselves in a reasonable position to achieve it.