SADLY, over the course of the last four years, there have been plenty of contenders for the unwanted mantle of the lowest point in Sunderland’s history. Losing at Burton in that first season in League One under Jack Ross perhaps. Exiting the FA Cup at the first-round stage or losing to a bunch of Under-21 players in the EFL Trophy. Shipping six goals at Bolton last season, or capitulating at Cheltenham while they were scrabbling around trying to find a manager. Dark days, the like of which had not previously been seen.

Tomorrow, though, a line can finally be drawn under all of that. Sunderland have not bounced back yet – the second tier is better than the third, but it is not the Black Cats’ rightful home – but at least they have finally stopped the rot and begun to change their direction of travel to an upward trajectory.

Under new majority ownership, with an experienced manager at the tiller and a group of enthusiastic, passionate players determined to prove their worth in the Championship, there is an air of renewed excitement around Sunderland. The forthcoming season will not be easy, with the Wearsiders pitched against clubs propped up by Premier League parachute payments, but after four long seasons of slogging around League One, optimism has finally returned to the Stadium of Light.

“The club has been shrouded in negativity for such a long time,” said Alex Neil, who astute management was a key factor in last season’s promotion success. “They feel as if they have been let down time after time.

“There have been different things with the ownership in the past and obviously the Netflix series - there have been a whole host of not particularly good things culminating in where we ended up. But last year we took a massive step to correcting a lot of those things, and we need to try and stay on that path.

“It’s not going to be easy, there will be people who start doubting us. Stick with us because it’s going to be a bumpy road, but I can assure everyone that these lads and myself will work as hard as we possibly can.”

Neil’s mantra throughout pre-season has been ‘optimism combined with realism’. No one wants to blunt the sharpened excitement that will be evident as Sunderland kick off the new season at home to Coventry City tomorrow, but for all that the Black Cats might boast the biggest attendances in the Championship and have a history laden with silverware, they find themselves having to play catch-up with almost all of their rivals in the second tier.

Of the last 12 sides that have been promoted from League One, none have finished higher than 15th in their first season in the Championship. Of the last four teams that won promotion from the third tier via the play-offs, three were relegated in the following campaign.

“I’m a realist in the sense that we’re moving to a very difficult level and we’ve not been there for a long period of time,” said Neil. “We’re a bit of an unknown quantity. I’m not quite sure how we’re going to do.

“I’m very hopeful, and optimistic about what our chances look like, but equally I know how difficult the level is, and I know the finances and some of the teams that have been building there for a number of years, and how hard they find it. So, I’m not naïve and thinking we’re just going to rock up and start scooting teams, because that’s not going to happen. It’s going to be a tough season.”

In many ways, tomorrow’s opponents provide a blueprint for Sunderland to follow, with Coventry having finished 16th in their first season after winning promotion, before improving to end up in 12th last term.

“I certainly think they’re (Coventry) a team you look at and think that’s the path we’re going down,” said Neil. “There’s been other teams that have flung money at it, but in the Championship, that’s very hard to do. Coventry are a team that have steadily built and gradually worked their way up to where they are.”

Sunderland (predicted, 4-2-3-1): Patterson; Gooch, Wright, Ballard, Cirkin; Evans, Neil; Roberts, Pritchard, Clarke; Stewart.