Heart-wrenching anger, unbearable sorrow, morbid despondency - surely we should be winning games like that, but we didn’t deserve it. That’s the truth. Really we should never have had to go through the playoffs.
For this squad, automatic promotion was attainable. That’s also the truth.
Why did we fail? Obviously the answer to that could be long enough to form a book. But here are a couple of reasons that have stuck out in my mind over the course of the season.
First and foremost, Leadbitter and Honeyman have been ineffective in most of the games they’ve played this season (aside from the former’s set pieces). Centre-midfield is such an important position. It is vital for any team’s success.
When Leadbitter came back in January, most Sunderland fans (myself included) expected a player capable of dictating play and tempo, with great awareness and a good range of passing. To me, he offers none of those things. In fact I would say McGeouch offers far more in terms of possession, positional sense, and an ability to dictate tempo.
It’s my opinion that we have always looked a better team with him in there.
Our captain, George Honeyman, is a great guy I’m sure - hard-working, professional, and a really good character. On the pitch however he is not fast, strong, or skillful, and has a tendency to not affect a game in any real way.
Both Leadbitter and Honeyman would make great squad players. But throughout their time here this season they have proved not to be good enough to start every week - yet they have been almost the first names on the teamsheet.
Without Lee Cattermole, I fear this season could have ended much worse.
We have a chance this summer to overhaul that position, and I pray that we look for the characteristics that we have been missing for seasons - height, strength and pace. I’m not saying I want a team of them, but one or two big, physical lads would make such a vital difference to our ability to control a game.
Another season-long problem that reared its head once again in the final was our inability to prevent crosses coming into our box from wide positions.
When Josh Cullen had the ball on the right of our box with only minutes to go, I found myself muttering “close it down, close it down” and “it doesn’t come in, it doesn’t come in”. Talk about déjà vu - to be honest I have found myself muttering this at pretty much every game this season. “It” (being the ball of course) always seems to find its way “in” (being our box). Yesterday was no different, and we were punished.
Sometimes this is due to an overlapping fullback, which is more forgivable, but more often than not it’s down to our poorly positioned fullback giving the opposition an obvious opening, as well as too much space and time to execute a dangerous delivery into our box.
Just off the top of my head, I recall us conceding goals in this fashion against Southend, Coventry, Rochdale and Portsmouth both in the league and in the cup final. On top of that, numerous other nervy defensive moments have been the result of crosses freely coming in.
It doesn’t take a genius to notice this, and it should be one of the first skills learned by a budding fullback. Yes - Luke O’Nien is not naturally a fullback. But what are we doing on the training ground if not working on closing down wingers and stopping crosses?
This summer could be full of change. Who really knows what lies ahead? But I think it goes without saying that at least two new fullbacks should be on our shopping list. And let’s hope they are already capable of closing down wingers, as our coaching team doesn’t seem capable of getting them up to scratch.
Let’s stay calm, identify where we fell down, and rectify it.
If we do, we’ll be fine next season.