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Finlay’s Report: Reviewing Sunderland’s 2018-2019 season - plenty to be positive about, or not?

With the 2018-19 season officially over now for Sunderland, RR’s junior reporter Finlay Anderson looks back at where it all went right and wrong for the Black Cats.

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New Life in Sunderland...

Sunderland started the new League One season with new life - Stewart Donald and his consortium bought the club fresh from two successive relegations from the Premier League and then more recently, the Championship.

He appointed bright Scottish manager Jack Ross, who had ideas to get the club back to where it belongs. He’d just helped St Mirren get back to the Scottish Premiership, but decided to leave them and travel south of the border to the North East. The new owners kept the fans involved with the club, they spoke openly about their purchase, the acquisition of new players, and the departure of unwanted squad members.

For the opening day of the season over 31,000 supporters came out to watch the first game of Sunderland’s second ever campaign in England’s third tier.

They faced Charlton Athletic at the Stadium of Light, a match shown live on SKY TV. Things didn’t go to plan in the first half, as Chris Maguire gave the Addicks a chance to score the first goal of the League One season from the penalty spot. Lyle Taylor did give the Londoners the lead, but in the second half, Sunderland had their dream ending. First, Josh Maja scored his first goal of the season to level the match in the 65th minute, before, the heroic finish. Lynden Gooch - a product of the club’s academy - struck in the 90+6th minute to give Sunderland the best ending they could have asked for.

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Eight-Game Winning Run...

All of the top sides from the EFL will at some point go on a long winning run, and Sunderland had theirs in October and early November.

It started in a ferocious match at the Northern Commercials Stadium in Bradford. The Black Cats won that game 2-1, with Jon McLaughlin saving a Bradford City penalty and both players having a man sent off.

After that, Sunderland had a two week break from League One action as the Blackpool match at the Stadium of Light was postponed due to international call-ups, but they did beat Carlisle United in the group stages of the Checkatrade Trophy on the Tuesday after the Bradford match.

Towards the end of October, Sunderland played three games in the space of eight days, and came out of them with nine points. First, the Black Cats travelled to New Meadow and beat Shrewsbury Town 2-0. Then, on the Tuesday, a Chris Maguire goal separated Jack Ross’ side and Doncaster. Finally, in the last game of the month, Sunderland thrashed Southend United 3-0 at the Stadium of Light with Chris Maguire scoring a goal of the month entry.

As November began, Sunderland beat Plymouth Argyle 2-0 at Home Park to move up into second place after an Aiden McGeady brace. Two cup competitions came up next for the Black Cats, with Port Vale being defeated 2-1 in the first round of the FA Cup, and then Morecambe were unable to keep Sunderland out for ninety minutes as Josh Maja scored a late winner at the Globe Arena.

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Josh Maja Departs...

In the January transfer window, the Josh Maja saga began.

The Sunderland striker didn’t want to commit his future to the club, so didn’t sign a new contract. He had scored 15 goals before he left in January, and even after he left, no players were able to score that many goals, so he was the club’s top scorer for the 2018-19 season.

Maja left for French Ligue 1 side, Bordeaux, for a deal that may still rise to £3.5 million.

After this, the Black Cats were left attempting to find a striker who could fit their style of play so, in a pursuit that lasted after deadline day, the club signed Will Grigg for a League One record fee.

For the remainder of the season, he made 18 appearances and only scored four goals, but his time was marred by injury.

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Penalty Shootout Defeat At Wembley...

At the start of the season Sunderland fans didn’t really care about the Checkatrade Trophy and just thought that it was a distraction to the league action. Meanwhile, even at the early stages, Jack Ross showed the tournament respect, and managed to manoeuvre the club through the early rounds and into the round of 16 where they took on the U21s side of rivals Newcastle United.

After a cagey first 45, Sunderland scored four goals in the second half to progress to the quarters. Manchester City’s U21s were next up for the Black Cats and they were defeated 2-0.

Sunderland fans had the Wembley arch in sight, but needed to beat Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Stadium first. Will Grigg gave Sunderland a first half lead, before Lewis Morgan sealed the win and confirm a final with Portsmouth at the national stadium.

For the Checkatrade Trophy final on Mother’s Day, over 85,000 fans travelled from all over the country and the world to Wembley. Both Portsmouth and Sunderland were battling it out for automatic promotion at the time, but this was a one-off game and a chance for either team to win silverware.

In the first half, where Sunderland dominated, Aiden McGeady had given them the lead from a beautiful free-kick. Meanwhile, in the second half, the game flipped on its head.

Nathan Thompson scored late on to send the match into extra time. In extra time, Jamal Lowe scored a brilliant lob after Jon McLaughlin came rushing off his line.

Sunderland had a ‘never say die’ attitude as with one minute of the 120 left, McGeady scored an equaliser to send the game into a dreaded penalty shootout. Lee Cattermole was the only player to miss - which left him distraught - so Pompey won 5-4 on penalties.

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End of Season Downfall...

Sunderland only won one of their last seven League One matches, meaning that they had to settle for the SkyBet League One play-offs.

In the middle of April, the Black Cats had three home games in a row, and only took four points from an available nine. Burton came to the Stadium of Light as one of the only teams to beat Sunderland in the league this season and held them to a 1-1 draw after taking the lead. Then, four days later, the Stadium of Light witnessed a thriller take place.

Coventry came to the home of Sunderland and won 5-4 to severely dent their hopes of automatic promotion. The Black Cats fans demanded a response and received one as they defeated Doncaster Rovers on Good Friday.

Then, on Easter Monday, one game changed the outcome of Sunderland’s season. With automatic promotion in their hands, Sunderland travelled to Peterborough with a game in hand on the top two. In a lacklustre affair, Max Power had given Sunderland the lead going into injury time at the end of the match at the ABAX Stadium. But, Matt Godden equalised to keep Posh’s slim play-off hopes alive, which meant that Sunderland couldn’t finish in the top two with a win in their game in hand.

Portsmouth came to the Stadium of Light in what was the Black Cats’ final home match of the regular League One season. After Tom Flanagan headed Sunderland into the lead, Jamal Lowe equalised for Pompey to allow the visitors back into the match. This would not be the last time these two teams would meet this season as both sides faced each other in the semi-finals of the League One play-offs.

This was because Sunderland lost their game in hand against Fleetwood at Highbury and Portsmouth lost their additional game against Peterborough at Fratton Park, meaning that both Luton Town and Barnsley were promoted to the Championship.

Sunderland entered the play-offs on the back of a 2-1 defeat against Southend United, who were fighting to avoid the drop to League Two.

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Play-Off Despair Again...

All that went before in Sunderland’s season had came down to this - the SkyBet League One play-offs. No fans wanted to be in them, but the club needed to win to gain promotion back to the Championship. The Black Cats would play their fourth and fifth match of the season against Portsmouth, as both teams were eyeing a place in the final at Wembley to play either Charlton or Doncaster.

In the first leg, which Sunderland played at home, a Chris Maguire goal meant that Sunderland had something to hold onto at the return leg at Fratton Park on the coming Thursday.

In the second leg, Jack Ross showed brilliant game management as Sunderland just needed to keep a clean sheet. Despite a Pompey onslaught at the end of half time and the second half, Sunderland managed to hold onto a 0-0 draw, which meant that they would be heading to Wembley.

Then, on Sunday 26th May 2019, only ninety minutes or more and Charlton Athletic stood in Sunderland’s way if they wanted to gain promotion. It was a re-run of the 1998 play-off final, but Sunderland were wanting a different ending to an old rivalry.

They started in the best possible way as Naby Sarr slotted the ball into the back of his own net in the fifth minute, with help from his goalkeeper, Dillon Phillips, who completely mis-controlled the ball.

Was this going to be Sunderland’s day?

Their lead lasted for only half an hour as Ben Purrington converted Lyle Taylor’s low cross. As the clock ticked down and extra time looking more and more likely, Charlton came up with a winner to make Wembley erupt. Patrick Bauer was given a second opportunity after his original header was blocked. All of the Sunderland fans were gutted and couldn’t believe what was happening in front of their eyes at Wembley again.

So, Luton, Barnsley and Charlton were the teams promoted to the Championship, with Sunderland not achieving promotion, but will no doubt have to strengthen in the summer if they want to be fighting for automatic promotion next season.