Last weekend saw Sunderland lose their first home game of the season in spectacular fashion in a 4-5 defeat to Coventry City. The defeat has left us in limbo, with fans divided on our chances of attaining an automatic promotion spot - and sections of the mackem faithful even appear to have accepted that we’ll have to settle for a play-off spot.
However, I’m not quite as convinced yet - I believe that there are still many positives to take and many reasons to be optimistic rather than pessimistic about the Black Cats’ promotion chances with just five games left to play.
Regularly praised externally and sometimes criticised internally, the Sunderland fans can be forgiven for perhaps being reserved in large parts of recent history, but their dedication to the cause cannot be questioned.
An average home attendance that exceeds what most Premier League sides manage and an away following that sells out its allocation with almost each passing game has driven the team on through some tough periods of the season.
Sunderland have two home games remaining against play-off placed Portsmouth and Doncaster Rovers, and vociferous support - akin to what we saw on Boxing Day against Bradford perhaps? - could be what it takes to push the lads over the line.
In seasons gone by you wouldn’t be wrong in questioning the passion and desire of the Sunderland squad and staff, with mercenaries like Jack Rodwell, Papy Djilobodji and David Moyes quite happy to put in minimal effort whilst picking up a hefty pay packet at the expense of our football club. But, this season you simply cannot question the commitment of this squad and management team.
Jack Ross has brought together a squad that is willing to battle for each other and have pride in wearing the shirt. This is the minimum we expect as Sunderland fans, and whilst some players in the squad may lack in quality their sheer passion and determination has kept us amongst the promotion pack all season.
Even in our high scoring defeat at the weekend the team clawed their way back into the game time and time again, something captain George Honeyman emphasised this week when rallying the troops on SAFC.com:
It is still very much in our hands.
The defeat has made it tougher but there’s no time to dwell and now we’ve got to go head first into our next game.
We never know when we are beaten because we kept coming back.
That will stand us in good stead, but we can’t afford to put ourselves in that position again. We’ve had 41 league games and 53 in all competitions – we can’t mess it up now.
Strength in depth
Thankfully at times this season we have had the ability and depth in our squad to change things around, with fatigue and a dip in performance levels common and expected during a campaign as long as ours this year.
Now we’re in the business end of the season, Sunderland will be looking to their bench and beyond for reinforcements and a fresh lease of life, with the final five games of the campaign coming thick and fast.
A change up in the heart of defence may be wise, with Flanagan and Baldwin doing their best Laurel and Hardy impression at the back in recent games.
One man who many Sunderland fans will be happy to see brought back into the fold following injury is Chris Maguire, who is predicted to be in the match day squad when Doncaster Rovers make the trip North on Good Friday.
The Scot gives us something that very few in League One can offer and that is the ability to make something from nothing. Maguire is a huge upgrade on Lewis Morgan, who has been underwhelming to say the least since his January loan move from Celtic. A fit and firing Chris Maguire may be the catalyst for one final push for promotion for the Black Cats.
Sunderland arguably have the toughest run in of the promotion contenders, with four of the five teams left to play sitting in the top half of the table.
Nevertheless, Jack Ross should be saying to his men that if they are to prove they deserve to be playing Championship football next season then they need to be beating teams such as Portsmouth, Doncaster Rovers and Peterborough, with the standard of opposition turning up a notch next year should we progress up the leagues.
The Black Cats must continue to make the Stadium of Light a fortress, with just the one defeat all season on home turf a welcome sight on Wearside. A revenge mission against Portsmouth on April 27th is one that will have huge implications for both sides, with the result likely to decide who takes second spot.
Form of other teams
Sunderland should only be looking up and concentrating on catching Barnsley in second spot. Win all your games and you go up, with the game in hand on The Tykes meaning that promotion is still in the Black Cats’ hands.
Barnsley have gone off the boil in recent weeks, with their win at the weekend over Fleetwood their first in three games.
Portsmouth travel to Burton Albion on Good Friday, with Burton the in form side in League One at present, with their only dropped points in their last five games coming against Sunderland.
A Pompey defeat prior to April 27th will ease the pressure on the tie and hopefully the stars will align and Sunderland can celebrate and clinch promotion in front of their deserving home support before a party on the South coast on the penultimate game of the year.