Saturday could be a milestone day in the recent history of Sunderland Association Football Club, but going top of League One will represent no more than a baby step on the path they hope to take.

Beat Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday, and the Black Cats will lead the table for the first time this season. It feels as though it will be significant, but in reality it will count for little if they are not there in May.

Reversing the miserable trend will be important after back-to-back relegations, but even promotion will only take the club out of a division they ought never to have been in in the first place.

Those in charge at the Stadium of Light are rightly cautious about running before they can walk, but owner Stewart Donald will not see his mission as having been accomplished until Sunderland are a settled, competitive Premier League side – whether under his stewardship or someone else’s.

Likewise, manager Jack Ross did not uproot to Wearside to manage a club which tops England’s third division for a week or two.

“We’ve done nothing to date other than give ourselves a good start to the season and a platform to try and get out of this division at the first time of asking,” he cautions.

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Sunderland vs Wycombe Wanderers

“Where I’m at with the club and how I feel about being here, this playing squad and how they’ve responded, I’m really pleased. I don’t think that’s far away at all from how I want to do things, so all that’s fine.

“Where we’re at in the grand scheme of things is difficult to say because this club has almost unlimited potential. I would love to fulfil that to the maximum but that’s going to take a period of time and football’s fickle that way, it can change very quickly.

“I’m focused on the next thing I can try to achieve, which is promotion from League One. If we achieve that you start to re-adjust your ambitions.”

Despite all that, if and when Sunderland do go top of the division – and coming into the weekend on a run of eight consecutive victories in all competitions, it already feels as if their momentum is inexorable – it will be cause for celebration.

When you have taken as many kicks in the unmentionables as the Black Cats and their supporters have over recent seasons every little achievement is to be savoured. More than 1,500 supporters were in Morecambe on Tuesday to witness and celebrate their team making it out of the group stages of the Football League Trophy.

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Sunderland vs Wycombe - will Black Cats make it 9 in a row?

Those who see Sunderland’s instant return to the division they left last season as inevitable do not understand the backstory.

“The task probably was bigger than I envisaged prior to taking the job,” Ross freely admits now. “I knew it was going to be big but when I got into it and understood some of the complexities of what was going on, and some of the complexities of the situations I inherited, it was challenging.

“I suppose I really just made a conscious decision to concentrate on the things I could control, which is the work we do on the training pitch and what I can try and build in the dressing room. There are other things I can’t and I had to just let those situations pan out.

“In hindsight I probably had to be brave in doing that and not trying to affect things I couldn’t because it’s a big enough job without having to worry about things you can’t affect.

“Once everything starts flowing in the way you would like, it feels like it’s been like this forever.”

It does feel like Ross has been at Sunderland for an eternity – and to have made it to a third international break of the season must qualify him for some sort of long-service award by recent standards – just as the logic of turning down Ipswich Town and others might seem a no-brainer now. But the problems facing the club as they built a coaching staff and off-field management team from scratch, and a squad from not far off it, while trying to move on any number of overpaid footballers with inflated ideas of their own self-worth and (in some cases) not nearly enough professionalism could have kept their heads below water.

Ross, though, always saw the possibilities clearer than the pitfalls.

“I had other opportunities to leave St Mirren and this one, on the face of it, I’m sure people would have said might not be the right one but for me the potential in the job was huge, and knowing if I could get it right, where I could take the club,” he recalls.

Sunderland manager Jack Ross applauds the travelling fans
Sunderland manager Jack Ross applauds the travelling fans at Port Vale

“I’ve got unbelievable facilities to work with, an unbelievable stadium and an incredible fanbase, so what’s better? There’s not a very obvious answer.

“That’s why it’s very easy to say you want to remain in this job and be successful at it for as long as you can.”

Going top of the table will be possibly the first mini-success of Ross’ time as Sunderland manager, but he will only look back on it fondly if there are plenty more to come.