That’s that, then. A season curtailed, the ramifications deep-seated and bitter for many, whilst the spoils of promotion and playoff places go to those fortunate enough to be on the right side of the ‘points per game’ metric.
For the clubs favoured by the mathematics, they can plan for what lies ahead. For those relegated, the aftertaste will doubtless linger. A flawed way to end a season? Without question, even in the wake of such unprecedented circumstances.
As for Sunderland? Two managers, one failed takeover bid, countless Twitter hashtags, a colossal amount of unrest amongst the fans, and one coronavirus pandemic, and the net result is a third consecutive season in the backwaters of the football league. Eighth place. Our worst finish in history. Embarrassing, unworthy of our club, or all we deserved from a season that never truly ignited, depending on whose opinion you read.
Our club is bruised and battered, on all levels, and it's standing in English football is diminished. Apathy will linger over the summer, and the agonising question of season-ticket renewals is yet another issue that is causing consternation. Hopefully, the club will at least be willing to listen to, and address, the concerns and annoyances of supporters. That link simply must be repaired, and swiftly.
Blame? Oh yes. There’s plenty of it to be apportioned. To Phil Parkinson, for getting off to a wretched start from which we barely recovered; to the players, for simply not performing when the pressure reached its greatest level of intensity, and to the owners, for their double-talk, consistent ducking and weaving, and a generally horrendous communication strategy during the season. One hundred points was the target back in August. Was it too ambitious? Definitely, possibly overly so. But OK, perhaps it was better to aim high and show a positive vision rather than downplay our hopes.
Alas, reality soon kicked back in. A summer transfer window that was at best, underwhelming, hardly got pulses racing, and Jack Ross, never truly forgiven by many for the ultimately unsuccessful 2018/2019 season, oversaw a less-than-convincing start to the campaign. Soon, he was gone, replaced by Parkinson, a man who ‘knew the league’ and had already tasted promotion to the Championship.
OK, he wasn’t exactly a name to excite us, but experience equates to stability, doesn’t it? Surely he could get a decent enough tune out of the players at his disposal.
Then came October. And November. And the start of December. Dismal performances, worse results. Down the table we plummeted, and promotion was replaced, in some quarters, by wicked whispers of a relegation battle and the very real prospect of the season drifting aimlessly towards, at best, a mid-table finish. Post-Christmas and into 2020 saw us strike gold, with a superb run of results that catapulted us back into the promotion picture and offer renewed hope to all.
Was Parkinson lucky? Did the players suddenly wake up? What we can say is that following the recovery, four crucial games (Gillingham, Fleetwood, Bristol Rovers and Coventry) in which we failed to secure the required results, had thrown another spanner into the works before the season was curtailed. Another downturn in form at exactly the wrong moment.
The playing squad cannot escape scrutiny. The likes of Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke have struggled continuously, whilst Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire have been forced, at times, to single-handedly carry the team’s attacking threats. Jon McLaughlin has appeared nervy and edgy during many games, and the lingering issue of us being too slow, too physically callow, and far too easy to play against is not going to be resolved easily.
The summer transfer window will be a challenge for all. With a list of free agents as long as your arm available, we’ll have to play a very smart and savvy game in order to enhance the squad ahead of next season. Should we have faith in the powers that be getting it right?
It will be an unpleasant summer for all connected with our club.
The fans are being asked to dig ever deeper into their reserves of loyalty, patience, and their ability to soak up punch after punch as the turmoil continues. I won’t lose faith that somehow, somewhere, a corner will be turned, but under this current regime, it is a hope that appears more forlorn than ever.
Only significant changes in all areas of the club will bring the new dawn that we all crave.