IT is one of Lee Johnson’s biggest disappointments that, despite being appointed as Sunderland’s head coach almost four months ago, he is yet to experience the full force of the Roker Roar. In fact, before the last couple of days, he had barely even encountered a Wearside whisper, such had been the restrictive nature of the Government’s coronavirus regulations.

Not only has Johnson been managing in empty stadiums, he has also spent his first four months as Sunderland boss closeted to his own home. Non-essential trips have been banned, so his interactions with the Black Cats fanbase have been few and far between.

Finally, though, the world is changing. From this week, the ‘Stay at home’ message has been dropped and outdoor gatherings of up to six people have been permitted. As a result, as the unseasonably hot spring sunshine burst through at the start of the week, Johnson found himself on the North Sea seafront eating fish and chips.

For the first time in his Sunderland reign, supporters started approaching him to say hello and pass on their thoughts about their team. For some of his predecessors, it might have been an uncomfortable experience. With a Wembley win in the bank though, and a ten-game unbeaten run in the league having taken his side to the brink of the top two, Johnson was able to revel in a reception that was as warm as the weather.

“We’d like the fans to be enjoying all of this with us,” said the Sunderland boss, who was speaking ahead of tomorrow’s game with Oxford United. “Unfortunately, they’re doing that from home, but we are feeling that support.

“I had a little walk on the beach to get some fish and chips with Macca (assistant Jamie McAllister) the other night, and we managed to engage with quite a lot of people, who were proper Sunderland fans. It was nice to bump into five and six along the way while I was eating my fish and chips.

“It’s been really nice to meet some of the fans. They’re the lifeblood of the club, we know that, and it’s their club and we’re just custodians. Therefore, we want to bring them as much joy as possible. You can tell in people’s eyes and their body language and facial expressions exactly how they’re feeling at the time. It seemed really, really positive, and they’ve been lovely people that I’ve met so far.”

Having spent more than a decade as a player and coach with Bristol City, Johnson found it hard to go incognito when he was out and about in the South-West.

Things were very different during his early days in the North-East, although as Sunderland’s fortunes have improved, so his own profile within his new home region has risen.

“It’s been strange,” he said. “I was quite well recognised in Bristol, whereas up here, I’ve been able to walk around Sunderland or Durham or Newcastle and people not really know me, although I have to admit that’s just starting to change a little bit. Originally, no one recognised me at all and that was quite a strange feeling for a bit.”

Sunderland’s supporters will be tuning into tomorrow’s game with an Oxford side sitting two points outside the play-off positions with an air of expectation, and while Johnson admits it is his job to take some of the pressure off his players, he freely admits his side head into the final ten games of the season with hopes justifiably high.

“We’ve got tough games and we’ve got to respect the strength of the division, but we’ve got a lot of options,” he said. “It’s getting to the position where it’s really difficult to select the bench now.

“The lads are in a good place, the team spirit is strong at the moment, as you’d expect on the back of a cup win and some wins in the league, and I think we’ve got a real clarity in the way we want to play.”