Cast your mind back, if you will, to February 9th, 2021. Little over a month ago, Sunderland had managed to throw away a lead and lose to Shrewsbury. The result left us outside the playoffs, and I amongst others had given up any hope of automatic promotion.
Fast forward to March 9th 2021, and the mood has taken a huge shift. Sunderland have since won every game bar a draw at Crewe, have a new owner and are in the final of the Papa John’s Trophy. We have gone from playoff possibilities to genuine automatic contenders. But what has caused this unbelievable turnaround in fortunes?
Aiden McGeady’s form
When Aiden McGeady was brought back from the cold, it took him a while to find the form he was capable of. However, his performance against Doncaster - the game that started this mini-revival - was one of the very best I have seen from a Sunderland player.
He was simply faultless, and assisted four goals for Charlie Wyke. Since then he has continued to supply beautiful crosses, causing people to refer to him as “a League One cheat code” - the same guy we knew from that first season at this level under Jack Ross.
Many fans have pretty much accepted that Aiden McGeady is unlikely to renew his contract with the club when it expires in the summer, but seeing him put so much effort in during recent few weeks obviously is proving Phil Parkinson wrong for singling him out as a bad egg.
Charlie Wyke’s hot streak
To be fair, this was happening before the Shrewsbury game, but Wyke’s goalscoring form this year has been nothing short of phenomenal.
However, it's not just his goals - Wyke’s all-round play has improved dramatically lately. He is running the channels, holding the ball up and giving defenders a torrid time. His goal against Swindon showed his improvement, coming across his man to power a header home. We would not have seen him anywhere near that a month or so ago.
He is now the best striker in League One and, baring an injury, is certain to hit 30 goals this season. Maybe even 30 league goals.
If he manages that, then I believe Sunderland will be in the top two.
The squad’s flexibility and depth
You would be forgiven as an outsider looking in for not noticing, but Sunderland at the moment barely have any defenders fit. Luke O’Nien has been asked to fill in at left centre half and has formed a formidable partnership with Dion Sanderson. Max Power has switched between centre midfield and right back and has performed admirably in both roles. We have seen Oliver Younger make his league debut, and he’s done a good job too.
The squad depth is now looking much better. Even with our injuries we still have players ready to come in. Chris Maguire has looked so much better lately coming off the bench to influence games. Talented youngsters such as Dan Neil and Jack Diamond are playing their part. A serious injury to Grant Leadbitter has seen Carl Winchester come in for a run of games, and he looks very good.
We even have a highly-rated striker, who signed in January but hasn’t played yet.
Good loan signings - at long last!
How good is it to finally have some decent loans in? Especially Dion Sanderson and Jordan Jones. Sanderson was struggling to get game time earlier in the season, even though every time he played, he looked like he had talent. But lately his partnership with Luke O’Nien has truly blossomed. Sanderson already looks a level above where he is. He is strong, a ball playing centre half but also a very clever footballer and is becoming a leader on the pitch despite his young years.
Jones is the player we have been crying out for - a player with genuine pace to scare defenders. Jones also has a beautiful crossing ability. His cross for Wyke’s header against Rochdale was sublime. He is also developing a knack for scoring gems, a stonking strike against Crewe followed by a delicate chip from an angle against Portsmouth.
The thing about Jones is, we haven’t even seen the best of him yet.
A manager who won’t take second best
After the Shrewsbury game, Lee Johnson went on record to say “we must do better” - and, since then he has seen his side win six games out of seven and also keep more clean sheets. The soft, silly goals conceded previously have dried up, and our attacking play has improved no end. Johnson will still be demanding more from the players.
Johnson is a manager who is not afraid to make the changes - he is forward-thinking and is determined to make Sunderland a force. He accepts the magnitude of being Sunderland manager and his standards are far greater than his predecessor who was happy to accept draws in games we really should have won.
He’s also brought McGeady back, and is getting the best out of players such as Wyke. You can tell the players are 100% behind his vision.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus was in the stands for the Shrewsbury defeat, and he would instantly have seen the scale of the job he had on his hands.
Since he has taken over the club we have seen the removal of Donald and Rodwell as directors, he has spent £500k on a state of the art pitch heating system and has sent the supporters a letter thanking us and setting out his vision to get us back to where we belong.
The change of ownership has instantly given the fans a lift, and I’m sure seeing Dreyfus at the games has given the manager and players a lift as well.
Now I know what you will be thinking - there are 13 games left in the season, and maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. To be honest it's hard not to, we have seen many false dawns in League One. But this one I really can’t help but get really excited about.
Four weeks ago, we thought automatic promotion was impossible. Now it is very possible.
We’ve given ourselves a really good chance - let’s take it this time.