In sport, as in life, the good times must keep rolling. Just as a partygoer looks forward to the next drink, oblivious to the fact that they’ve already submitted the mountain and the only way is down, so too do sportspeople and fans long for the wins to never let up. Momentum is valuable currency and, when a side is swatting away all before it, the feeling is that any checking of a team’s progress should be avoided at all costs.
The problem is, you never know when times are best until they’re in the past. For Sunderland’s momentum, this season’s peak came in the two-goal victory at Plymouth Argyle in early November. A cagey affair was decided in the second half by two Aiden McGeady goals, ensuring the side’s seventh consecutive victory and propelling them into an automatic promotion spot. A further victory followed at Port Vale in the FA Cup, but they faded poorly in the second half and, if we are to persevere with this rather ham-fisted analogy (and we are), that win was akin to Jack Ross’ men experiencing a slight gag reflex to one pint too many, the body affording them the opportunity to set their drink down, go home and rest.
That opportunity looked to have come in the form of an international break that is not mandatory this far down the league ladder. Having already postponed the visit of Blackpool in October for fear of missing the likes of Jon McLaughlin and Lynden Gooch a tad too much, Ross and the club set out their stall early, confirming that the game at home to Wycombe Wanderers would go ahead regardless of international absentees. McLaughlin, preferring to play for his club than sit on the bench for his country, excused himself from Scotland duties and Gooch and Costa Rica’s Bryan Oviedo didn’t end up being required by their countries. That rendered the refusal to cancel the game rather moot after all, but it was telling just how determined everyone was for the match to go ahead.
However, what followed was not a lengthening of a winning run but instead a train being stopped firmly in its tracks. Wycombe arrived on Wearside with a plan and the will to stick to it and, where recently Sunderland had not erred in breaking sides down, now the hosts found themselves rather flummoxed. Josh Maja (who else?) arrived from the bench to wrest a draw from potential defeat, but the performance had the unmistakable hint of a misfire when compared to recent weeks. Standout events seven days later, Max Power’s overturned red card and a late Gooch equaliser, took up most of the airtime afforded to the trip to Walsall, but again the side’s levels had noticeably dropped and though they rebounded with a stunning opening half hour that helped them see off Barnsley in a key game, it is undeniable that the rather mixed fortunes of recent weeks started back in mid-November.
None of this is to pour scorn on Ross and his colleagues. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and especially so here. Yet it is interesting to compare and contrast the way things were a few months ago with how they stand now. Where the last potential break was universally unwanted, now the feeling within and without the club is one of relief that Ross need not worry about another game for a week and a half. After Tuesday’s accomplished win over Manchester City’s under-21s, the 10-day break leading up to the visit of AFC Wimbledon is the joint-longest the club has had all season, something which will remain the case unless they find themselves left to deal with the horror of a play-off final appearance.
Since they entered into their brave new world back on August 4, Sunderland have played 37 first-team games in 24 and a half weeks. To put that into perspective, last season it took until February 20 for a similar milestone to be reached; back in 2016/17, the date was as late as April 15th. The victory over the best and brightest Abu Dhabi has to offer ensured that there are at least another 20 games to be played by Ross’ side before the season’s end, a tally of fixtures which could, under certain circumstances, go as high as 24.
By anyone’s book that is an extraordinary amount of games to tackle, and though Sunderland boast a well-sized squad it is without question that such a schedule takes its toll. Up until now the team has, on average, played a game roughly every four and a half days. That has been done with a side that is very much new, and even some of those who are now seen as relative stalwarts have frighteningly little experience in the grand scheme of things. Gooch, for instance, has played a total of 2,315 minutes of professional football this term, which is almost as much as he had played in his entire career prior to August. The manager too, is not quite used to the frenetic nature of this season’s fixture calendar: Ross’ 37 games in charge comprise a shade under a third of his managerial career to date.
If potential burnout is one reason to welcome the break before us there are others which are no less worthy of mention. For a start, it offers an opportunity to focus minds. Ross has granted his squad leave until next Monday, which will enable both recuperation and reflection on a whirlwind season thus far. Moreover, it will allow Ross to go about pressing transfer business unencumbered. The manager wants three players in before the end of January and the lack of a game this weekend will surely aid him in that regard. It is not unwise to suggest that an ability to focus on addressing the squad’s perceived deficiencies without the distractions of training and tactics will only serve the Scot well as the season progresses. Similarly, the Josh Maja contract situation is expected to come to a head soon enough. Events earlier this month surrounding the striker’s future were the first whereby we have seen Ross noticeably miffed since he joined the club, and clarity in this regard will doubtless be welcomed in all quarters.
The side’s recent run of form has not been as apocalyptic as some would have you believe. Just two defeats have arrived since mid-September and, for all the wailing about poor results, Sunderland made it through January unbeaten. Yet the drop-off that we saw at home to Wycombe has been exaggerated further in recent displays, most noticeably in the draws with Shrewsbury and Scunthorpe. That the Black Cats are still well in touch at the top of the table is testament to both their quality and the stumbles of those around them.
AFC Wimbledon will arrive at the Stadium of Light as League One’s bottom side. With rested legs and, if Ross gets his way, new faces, it presents a good opportunity for the promotion push to get back on firmer ground. For the next week and a half though, for manager, players and fans alike, it is time to take stock and, perhaps most of all, catch our breath. Because what comes after it is unlikely to be any less frantic than what the first six months have brought.