So that’s that, then. After the utterly shambolic conclusion to the League One season, Wycombe, with their band of limited but undeniably committed players, sealed promotion to the second tier for the first time in their history. They doubtless don’t give a fig how it was achieved, simply that they’ve delivered Championship football to Adams Park, and their more illustrious rivals, ourselves included, have been left to stew, many of us seething at what we see as an injustice served up by the EFL.
Still, there’s nothing we can do now, and next season will soon be approaching fast. As is widely accepted, there are many attributes that must come together if Sunderland are to escape League One next season. We must be as productive in the transfer window as we possibly can, because the squad’s current shortcomings are plain to see. A major injection of pace, a more reliable defence, and an upgrade to far more prolific centre-forwards are among them, but as well as what we do with the ball at our feet, I believe a fundamental shift is required from a mental perspective as well.
When I think of Sunderland’s promotion-winning teams, all of them had players of supreme skill and footballing intelligence, but they also had players who were gifted with a relentless focus and a knack for, shall we say, riling the opposition and not shying away from the rougher side of the game when necessary. Richard Ord and Dariusz Kubicki in 1996, Kevin Ball in 1996 and 1999, and Alex Rae in 1999, to name but four. Talented players, all utterly dedicated to the cause, but even better at gaining a psychological edge for their team.
It was that blend of ‘skill and steel’ that proved to be the winning formula during those seasons.
There is a very strong argument to be made that, since the departure of Lee Cattermole, Sunderland have been sorely lacking in aggression.
If you take the ever-reliable Chris Maguire out of the equation, none of our players really have the Cattermole knack of both simultaneously lifting their own team whilst driving the opposition up the wall. Max Power is a solid leader, but isn’t exactly what you’d call exuberant or particularly confrontational, Jordan Willis is a physically strong defender but seldom puts in the kind of thunderous challenge that can turn the tide at a crucial moment.
There is something of a void there that needs to be filled, because we currently have a team of decent, honest professionals, not hard-bitten warriors.
If promotion is to be achieved during 2020/2021, Sunderland undoubtedly need to get harder and more businesslike.
I’m not advocating that we suddenly turn into a Wimbledon-esque ‘kick ‘em off the park’ kind of team, but aesthetics should be secondary to results, and there should be a desperation from both players and coaches alike to get out of this league. If we do find ourselves in a position where we can play some expansive, slick football, so much the better, but in my opinion, the argument that underpinned the Jack Ross era, that of the ‘entertainment factor’ and quality of football, should be far less significant next season.
The scoreboard after ninety minutes should be our only measurement of success or failure.
Regarding the attitude we must carry into next season, I do wonder how the players will cope with the prospect of playing our home games during the opening months at an empty SOL. Perhaps they will feel under less pressure and will be able to play with more freedom as a result of that, but conversely, we all know the effect that a raucous crowd can have on a team. Will they be as fired up for home matches, knowing that they won’t have the crowd’s energy to feed off?
It will be a very stiff test of the fortitude and resilience of the players, without a doubt.
Praise for Wycombe’s promotion may well be delivered through gritted teeth, but would any of us have any major complaints if Sunderland gained a place in the Championship by vaguely similar, if not identical, means? If the end justifies the means, Sunderland should not think twice about changing their approach when the new season rolls around.