It's never easy losing a game of football. It doesn't matter whether you are habituated to it after seasons of episodic defeat after defeat, or whether it's a defeat which puts to an end a prolonged unbeaten run - it's hard to take - and Saturday's 'Nightmare Before Christmas' at Fratton Park was no different.
There are many cliches in football, but the game at Portsmouth felt 'big' - whatever big means in context - and for 45 minutes Sunderland lived up to both the games and their own, by League One standards, big expectations. Despite question marks being raised about Jack Ross' team selection; there was a refreshing control about Sunderland's play.
The midfield trio of Max Power, Lee Cattermole and George Honeyman displayed a composure the league leaders seemed to lack. Their passing was crisp and precise, unruffled by the partisan atmosphere being created by the hosts. The defence were solid, untroubled, with the plucky Luke O'Nien adequately filling in at right back, constantly looking to get involved. Lynden Gooch and Aiden McGeady invariably on the ball while Duncan Watmore showed glimpses of his direct threat. This was overdue, and this was good. Sunderland were taking it to the leaders and making them look average - the only thing missing being a breakthrough.
So what happened in the second 45 minutes was more than just a slap in the face. It was a sledgehammer to the bollocks, and it hurts - it still does. Of course receiving a red card a mere 60 seconds after the restart will disrupt things, but the way in which the positives from the first half seemingly evaporated because of it, bringing about the conceding of two further sloppy, to say the least, goals is a concern. But perhaps what is more concerning is the fact the defeat has been coming.
Lets take a dose of reality here. So far, Sunderland have not 'set the world alight' in League One. There has been an arduous number of games, particularly at the Stadium of Light, where performances have been suspect irrespective of the result. In recent weeks, Jack Baldwin and Tom Flanagan have wilted somewhat from their honeymoon period as a blossoming central defenisve partnership with errors creeping in, passes going astray and goals being conceded. While no player at this level is going to be on top form every game, there is a little trepidation. Lynden Gooch's early season form too has wavered somewhat amidst constant contract talks, along with Josh Maja ,whose negotiations saga will be one of the main topics in the weeks ahead over the January transfer window, continuing to split opinion to name but a few.
"Get a grip man, we're third in the league with two games in hand," I hear you say. And I get that. It's a testament to the new found resolve in the players at the club to dig results out when not playing well, and one I am fully appreciative and welcoming of. But again, a dose of reality; failing to gain promotion this year would be catastrophic to the club - not just the financial implications another year, at least, in League One would bring, but the potential to halt the enormous wave of optimism being poured back into the fanbase by the new regime. Sitting eight points adrift of the top and four from second, albeit with those two games in hand, is cause for a little agitation.
The positive about it being this time of the year in the football calendar is that the games come thick and fast, and Sunderland have the quintessential tonic for the defeat at Portsmouth in another game on Boxing Day as Bradford City come to the Stadium of Light in front of bumper crowd - the first of four games in 10 days. With well over 40,000 tickets sold for Boxing Day's clash against The Bantams, it gives Ross' men the perfect opportunity to bounce back. While a boom in turnstile clicks usually transpires to a bust on the pitch, this is a game Sunderland can ill-afford to let pass them by.
There is a long way still to go in the season. Like always they are marathons, not sprints. But while things could be a lot worse for Sunderland, there is room for improvement when looking at the League One table and I guess that is why the defeat at Portsmouth is such a difficult one to digest amongst the Christmas turkey and wine.
There are performances in there, the run of games through October into early November suggests that, but Sunderland need to find them on a more consistent basis moving into the second half of the season. Nobody said it was going to be easy this season and as has already been touched upon, the ultimate goal - whatever the circumstances - is to not be in this league next season. But there is an element of mentality to it; a privilege that appertains to us as supporters.
So while you tuck into your festive pints before the match this afternoon, ask yourself whether yours is half full or half empty with regards to the season so far? The majority of us, I should hope, will say they are half full, but therein lies the problem. They are only half full. We need them full. Starting today.