As the dust settles on what was - given the timing and implications - the most crushing defeat in the club’s history, consigning Sunderland to their lowest ever finish, it’s natural to question the ownership, management and players in a season ending ultimately in sudden despair and lingering disappointment.
Whilst the wounds will remain open for some time, and the temptation of an inquest is always more appealing than a chance to reflect on the positives however distant they may seem, the opportunity to stop and take a moment and realise this defeat isn’t the end, and reviewing our recent history holistically, relegation at home to Burton probably surpasses the club’s play-off disappointment.
On the basis hope was entirely absent, and although it may not feel it right now, fans of Sunderland AFC have a lot more to be hopeful of now than they did on the 21st April 2018.
But let’s not defend the indefensible here. Sunderland failed this year. A summer of failing to capture preferred targets, poor preparation due to a fragmented squad and slow, unimaginative performances towards the end of the season sealed a season of sadness as opposed to a season of celebration. In fact, close but not cigar seemed to be the theme from start to finish.
Prior to the defeat at Wembley, Lee Cattermole told the Telegraph the “soft” stuff has helped improve the mood around the club, but ultimately wins are the reason the club has turned a corner in its mood at least.
Fast forward 90+4 minutes, that mood had unsurprisingly been quelled. But Cattermole has a point. An open, transparent and community approach by Donald and Methven helped immensely, but the good will offered in return seems to have been withdrawn in large wages, judging by fans reaction both in Wembley and on social media immediately afterwards. A win would have seen a reaction a world apart.
So in review then, and starting at the top, the ownership have achieved more than most could have hoped off of the pitch, and it’s likely been a harsh learning curve in terms of dealing with professional footballers in transfer negotiations as it does to non league, and perhaps, part time footballers.
Lyle Taylor’s comments at least reflect that, and the failure to capture one of League One’s most well-rounded players, among others, probably sees that sentiment ring true.
A huge turnover of players could have been forgiven for taking time to gel, but performances of some suggested that it was rather that the league or club was too much for them. Others have performed fantastically well, a goalkeeper playing levels below his performances suggested he could, a central midfielder filling in admirably at right back, and the renaissance of Oviedo came too little, too late.
As the owners likely rue some decisions they can’t be fully to blame for the final finishing spot, can they? The squad is still littered with players who have extensive international, European and Premier League appearances, proven track records at this level, and youth with potential.
So is it the manager then that must bear the most criticism?
It’s clear Sunderland weren’t ruthless enough. Twenty games drawn for a team fighting for a title is staggering, and if we are brutally honest, Ross should have got more out of his players to ensure three or four of those were victories. Had that been the case, Wembley heartbreak would have likely been left to Barnsley or Portsmouth to deal with.
The manager will also feel he could have had more of an influence when his sides were looking to consolidate victories. It is apparent, however, despite the track record and history of some, certain members of the squad clearly weren’t good enough. Central defenders were aplenty, but none of them showed the consistency or class required to navigate an automatic promotion, and despite scoring in almost every game Sunderland failed to show enough cutting edge to finish teams off.
That’s not to say Jack Ross wasn’t supported. He got his man Will Grigg, arriving in January to add the goals to guarantee promotion didn’t go to plan, but that’s not to say he can’t be hit. Despite being excruciatingly disappointed Ross has shown in glimpses he’s learning his trade and he’s learning from his previous mistakes, and whilst he might not be the finished article, he’s showing the hallmarks of a professional in learning from those experiences.
We’re all aware of what’s gone before - it’s time to look forward, though unfortunately the view is lower down and slightly further away from where we’d hope to take position. Nonetheless, forward and upwards are the clichéd notion we must now all focus on.
Another huge turnover of players is likely required, possibly an entire back four, a striker, youth, energy and athleticism in midfield. In fact, those credentials will likely be sought in all of those positions.
The owners and manager should be criticised for not taking this approach and attempting to nurture a squad with time on their side that could grow into a squad we’ve seen in the likes of Huddersfield, Bournemouth, Southampton and Swansea - all examples of clubs that have gone from League One to the Premier League with a core of talent raised in the badlands of Tranmere, Portsmouth and Wimbledon.
If we’re honest, this squad was miles away from one that could compete in the league above, and a relegation scrap is likely the best we could all have hoped for. But that does not excuse the failure to achieve promotion.
The truth is, all three elements - owners, manager and players - share the blame for not getting the club to where we all desperately wanted them to be. Ownership may change in the summer, as will the playing squad, whilst I’d expect the manager will stay at the helm.
So whilst it’s raw, sad, frustrating and a disappointing end, the reality is that Sunderland aren’t staring off a cliff into a sea of oblivion as we were post-Burton.
Instead we are somewhere we’d prefer not to be but with owners and a manager that, should they prepare professionally, learn lessons from the failings of this season and most crucially, approach 2019-2020 with a mandate of players who can grow into a squad capable of competing at the level above.
There should be less talk of p*ss-taking parties and what has gone before and more focus on what they can affect - that will be a recipe for success not only next season, but lay the foundations for further progression in the years ahead.