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Were Sunderland expected to run away with League One this season, or not?

“Of course, tracking back the recent trends aren’t perpetual trends - after all, this is football, but they do provide a timely reminder based on where Sunderland sit?” asks Tom Albrighton.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

After Saturday's frustrating draw, although you wouldn’t think it, Sunderland sit within two points of the top of the table. It’s a position that decries the calls for the sacking of the manager or yet another directional change for the club.

As is to be expected in League One, performances in recent weeks have born the Jekyll and Hyde trademarks we’ve all become all too familiar with since our inception into this division some four years ago.

By now, one would assume that whilst not entirely accepting of the turbulent nature of our general League One performance, they would have by now at least made peace with it. That turbulence isn’t just restricted entirely to Sunderland and contrary to what many would have you believe, this is a fate bestowed upon every team in football - it is the very nature of the game and why it is universally adored.

Sadly at this juncture, the only consistency in our performances is that they’re inconsistent.

The inconsistency itself isn’t a cause for panic and provided you are happy to embrace a certain level of chaos, it should be embraced to a certain degree. After all, this isn’t like our elongated stay in the Premier League, where consistency was provided on the basis that was directly related to being regularly outplayed with our only saving grace being a stay of execution, granted by sacking our manager in time for derby day.

Sunderland v Oxford United - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The wider question is, why is this all so frustrating and more so, what’s changed to make this so unpalatable in such a short space of time?

Post-pandemic angst will play a huge role in what can be only described as a wanton need not only to be entertained, but to be satisfied and it seems that if this criterion is not met many will make their feelings known.

A lengthy period removed from football and society as a whole has certainly magnified and exacerbated a trend, in which our need to be provided with the instant hit of gratification we were robbed of when our match day experiences were moved into nothing more than starting blankly towards a screen - more going through the motions than experiencing any emotions.

That need for that instant gratification is perhaps why the word patience is one that can’t be found on Wearside, in the crowds or on the pitch and whilst the argument that circulates around a sense of ”why *should* we wait” will never be wrong, it may be wise to remember that, to coin that iconic advertising slogan, good things come to those who wait.

Waiting in this sense should in theory be an easy argument to make - especially provided most of us don’t have our Christmas trees up yet.

Sunderland v Northampton Town - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
Will Kyril Louis-Dreyfus stick by Lee Johnson?
Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

So when someone suggests waiting, how long is it we should wait for? Well, most people will say until the end of the season, and I’d largely agree with that unless your manager's name happens to be Phillip Parkinson.

When arguing this recently I’ve regularly implored people to look at previous League One tables to highlight how key staying patient is and how ridiculous calls for the manager's head are.

Take last season for example - at the 19 game stage (20th December 2020), league leaders Portsmouth sat top of the table with 35 points, eventual winners Hull sat two places below them with 34 points, with fellow automatically promoted side Peterborough in 5th with 32 points. Interestingly, play-off winners Blackpool were sat just a point and one game worse off than Sunderland in 12th with 27 points.

So is there a trend to emerge here? Well, strictly speaking (at least in recent times) there is.

In the 2019/20 season, eventual automatic promotion winners Coventry and Rotherham both sat in the play-offs, both with 20 games played and 31 points to show for their endeavours. Wycombe would controversially make and subsequently win the play-offs by virtue of their PPG after slipping down the table after winning 43 points from their first 20 games.

Lincoln City v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Too many draws saw Jack Ross come up short
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Again, the year before shows similar trends, Barnsley this time making the automatic spots after making 35 points from 20 games. Bucking the trend this time was Luton who occupied an automatic promotion spot with 41 points from 21 games - above them were Portsmouth who subsequently let a 6 point lead with a game in hand slip, finishing in the play-offs.

Of course, tracking back the recent trends aren’t perpetual trends - after all, this is football, but they do provide a timely reminder based on where Sunderland sit.

In a league plagued by inconsistency, sometimes that inconsistency has to be suffered before a real charge is mounted. Very few teams have sat top after 20 or so games then ran away with the league and that can be a testament to just how fickle form can be.

Looking back, consistency in this division isn’t always reward, should we cast our minds back to the 19 thrilling draws under Jack Ross in our first season in League One, a semi-chaotic style similar to what we employ now may well have seen us reap instant rewards, with seven points being the total we fell short by should we have converted overly cautious draws into more sporadic wins and losses.

Hallmarks of championship-winning sides have generally manifested in the exercising of patience and a strong finish after Christmas, with very few teams ’winning’ the league prior to this.

So maybe then we should embrace the chaos and rather than see being two points behind the league leaders as an underachievement, let us see it as what it is - an ideal start? No. But is it a foundation we can win this league from? Absolutely.


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