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“Was the decision to sell Josh Maja a reason why Sunderland missed out on automatic promotion?”

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Tom Fowdy looks at the decision to sell Sunderland’s top scorer in January and the suggestion from some fans that doing so had a baring on our inability to finish in the top two this season. Do you think we’ve missed him?

Gillingham v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

On a cold, wet and windy November evening, moments after Aiden McGeady scored a penalty, Josh Maja seized an opportunity from a Barnsley mistake, overpowered his man, flipped round and fired an astutely aimed short into the corner of the net.

Few would disagree that it was a goal of outstanding quality. Already on over 10 goals at that point, Josh was proving to be an indispensable asset for the club. Yet, already at that point there was a shadow looming over him, a growing doubt and uncertainty surrounding his future.

Negotiations on a potential contract renewal seemed to go nowhere as he started dragging his feet and then by January, the worst happened… the club had their arms twisted into selling him to French ligue 1 side Bordeaux, a location and opportunity for more lucrative than cold dreary nights on Wearside of the sort.

Fast forwards to May. Everyone feels a bit angry. There’s no need to guess why. In spectacular Sunderland-esque fashion, the Black Cats rolled from being in a pivotal position with several games in hand against Barnsley to throwing it all away and damning themselves to the lottery of the playoffs.

Inevitably, fingers of blame are being pointed everywhere. Anger has surfaced against the management, the ownership, not least of course involving the decision to sell Maja himself. It is claimed by some voices accordingly that selling Josh and replacing him with the somewhat unfit Will Grigg was a miscalculation that ultimately cost us promotion. Unable to replicate his goal scoring form, crucial games were threw away accordingly and it came back to haunt us in the end.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Is that really the case? The evidence in fact suggests otherwise. Sunderland’s inability to put games to bed in fact became clear long before his departure; in fact even at the beginning of the season itself.

The first warning signs that our automatic promotion campaign wasn’t as strong as we hoped was when we threw away two vital winnable home games against mediocre sides all the way back in September. Oxford and Fleetwood would come to the Stadium of Light and much to our surprise jump into 1-0 leads on the back of abysmal home performances. Whilst we were able to pull both of these situations back to a draw, few could argue these were needless points dropped.

These results would prove not just to be a temporary blip in form but the start of an epidemic which would grow and persist to undermine our entire season’s prospects, all which occurred right within Maja’s prime of scoring here.

Time and time again, the first half of the season, just like we have saw within the last, cheap goals were given away, or leads were simply squandered. Maja’s contributions were obviously essential, but they could not address the broader symptoms pertaining to the team’s lack of performance and ability. A full list of such games in the 1st half of the season goes as follow, all of which should have been won:

  • Sunderland 1-1 Oxford (went behind first)
  • Sunderland 1-1 Fleetwood (went behind first)
  • Coventry 1-1 Sunderland (allowed them to equalize)
  • Sunderland 1-1 Wycombe (went behind first)
  • Walsall 2-2 Sunderland (went behind + allowed them to equalize)
  • Sunderland 1-1 Shrewsbury (went behind first)
Gillingham v Sunderland Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Given this, the sale of Maja should be not attributed as a turning point in the failure of Sunderland’s automatic promotion campaign, but all insights should be looking towards what was a long term and outstanding problem in Sunderland’s performances which ultimately added up in the end.

Scoring enough goals was never the problem, neither before his departure nor after it (other players such as McGeady and even Wyke did make the step up). Instead a brief examination of results throughout the season comparable to the ones listed above, indicate the problem was in fact repeatedly conceding them.

As above illustrated, the pattern persisted in that Sunderland conceded an inappropriate amount of needless opening goals or equalisers, failing to kill off the games in question.

The Barnsley fixture as described in the opening paragraph meets this criterion. Although we can look back at it as a hard won game against a promotion rival, the fact we rushed into a 3-0 lead and then allowed them to initially pull it back to 3-2 so easily spoke volumes about the weaknesses visible within our side.

Thus to conclude, it’s probably fair to say rather than blaming our inadequacy on the departure of our player, criticism should be obviously rooted in our poor defensive play and lack of decisiveness on the pitch.

Maja is gone - let’s stop the bitterness and using this as a venting point. He doesn’t change the bigger picture that this has been a season where we have been good, but simply not good enough. Unable to instinctively kill off games, especially in crucial fixtures, the work Jack Ross is going to have to put in as the playoffs approach is going to need to be phenomenal.

We hope for the best, we hope for a win always, but let’s be honest it doesn’t make good reading.