Source: Sunderland AFC via Facebook. Even in a club's most desperate moments, relegation should never be welcomed with open arms. Many fans cite the possible advantages of getting relegated to come back promoted as a stronger side. Those fans are mostly those who are resigned to the inevitability of relegation. Relegation understandably changes the atmosphere and expectations at a club, and this can be as destructive as it can be constructive. At Sunderland, relegation to League One has marked the beginning of a building process.
Of course, transition doesn't have to wait until relegation to be ushered in. It certainly doesn't have to wait for consecutive relegations. All of the good that is occurring now (hiring a progressive manager, finally getting rid of the expensive deadwood) would have been even more exciting if it was happening in the tier above. Yet League One is far removed from the scrutiny and excess of the Premier League, and the relegation may ultimately prove instrumental in ridding the club of the culture of losing.
A disproportionately low percentage of people would have backed Sunderland to make an instant return to the Premier League after their relegation, in part an indictment of the turmoil at the club and in part a comment on the talent already at the top of the division. Things are different in the third tier. Even though Sunderland have undergone a far more drastic transformation than after their previous relegation, outsiders are still expecting the side to be among the contenders for promotion this season.
Early indications show that the club has adapted well to shifting expectations. Sunderland's first five home matches of the season unsurprisingly saw the side priced up as the favourite in betting markets. Of those games, Sunderland have won three; comprehensive victories over Scunthorpe and Rochdale form part of strong home form that began with the late drama in the 2-1 win against Charlton on the opening day. Two draws round off their opening quintet of home fixtures that have passed without defeat.
Sunderland have been transformed from a side to bet against into one to consider when creating an accumulator for the weekend's fixtures. William Hill's football accumulator tips advocate avoiding teams at very short prices, but Sunderland currently have the perfect balance of genuine expectations of victory with a value price. If Sunderland's strong start continues, those odds may well shorten to the point where winning is perceived as an absolute must. This will present a new challenge for Ross in which he will have to respond to increased pressure. The honeymoon period has not yet ended, but there will be a run of difficult games that test this new Sunderland side's resilience.
In Ross, Sunderland have a manager aware of the expectation that comes with leading a promotion-chasing side. Ross dealt with this expectation expertly at St Mirren, and this is one area in which he will have a wealth of experience to pass on to the younger players. Peterborough and Portsmouth are sides that have the legs to maintain pace in the marathon of League One. These are sides battle-hardened by years in the Football League. Sunderland will hope that they don't stay long enough to become battle-hardened by the third tier, with early signs suggesting that the club is finally looking up rather than down.