Twelve days ago, with the ball firmly on their side of the court, Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven delivered on transfer deadline day by signing the most expensive cheque in League One history and completing the signing of Will Grigg at the eighth time of asking, but now it is over to Jack Ross and his players.
The capture of Grigg was very much a season defining moment. It was a suitable replacement, in name at least, for the departed Josh Maja and his goals as well as being a real statement of the intent to gain promotion, affording the fans an opportunity to remain optimistic. Like all good Netflix series however there is a sequel, and the second instalment of the season defining franchise starts tonight at the Stadium of Light with the visit of Blackpool. It brings to a head the elusive succession of three home games in seven days that have been penned into everyone’s diaries - including two of the much-anticipated games in hand.
With every passing game and subsequent disappointing performance and result, the go-to comfort has been the games played column and the fact Sunderland have up to three games in hand over some of their promotion rivals. Unfortunately, after Saturday’s shoddy display at Oxford, those games in hand will no longer take Sunderland to the summit. Irrespective of that, the importance of the week ahead cannot be underestimated.
Ross himself did little to quell the significance of the next three games speaking after Saturday’s draw by insisting the minimum requirement to avoid any justified criticism is nine points – and he is right. With just four wins from the last 11 league outings coupled with the lack of chances being created and the general underwhelming nature of performances throughout that run, the first ripples of frustration and whispers of discontent have impartially started to wash ashore – it is hardly promotion winning form after all.
As Luton Town continue to stretch their legs at a canter at the top of the league, opening up an 11-point advantage over Sunderland, the focus has quickly shifted to the only other spot in the table above the dotted line in second, currently occupied by Barnsley. The game at Oakwell in four weeks-time always had the potential to be a big one in the season run-in and it continues to grow in magnitude by the game with the five-point gap to them also looking increasingly concerning.
That five-point deficit needs to be reduced this evening otherwise the blanket of safety the two or three games in hand on teams Sunderland have held becomes redundant and the season itself no longer remains in their own hands. It is not unreasonable to suggest that these three games could determine whether Sunderland go up automatically or are forced into the lottery of the Play-Offs.
It was never going to be sunshine, plain sailing and rose tint all the way back to the Championship or there beyond, but this elongated slumber has caused an anxiety amongst supporters that needs managing – and the only solution is to win football matches. There are often moments throughout a season where you can look back upon at its climax and suggest “that was the turning point,” “that is where it went wrong,” “that is where we got back on track,” and for Sunderland and Ross that juncture is here.
The ball is now firmly in Ross’ court after the owners delivered on their word on deadline day. He needs to settle on a formation and personnel and deliver some results – while performances also wouldn’t go amiss. It’s seven days, it’s three games, it’s nine points required. It’s season defining… again.