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Accrington Stanley v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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We’ve been here before... but this time it’s different

As Sunderland’s third attempt at promotion from League One enters its final throes, Graeme Atkinson looks for reasons why it’s different this time around.

Photo by Lewis Storey/Getty Images

Automatic promotion very much in our hands? Check.

Games in hand on teams above us? Check.

We’ve been here before.

Under Jack Ross, we flirted with the Championship, but this time, importantly, there’s a confidence that momentum will carry us over the line. The impetus behind the Lads seems more tangible this time around.

It feels odd to write something so positive for a change. Until recently the expectation was that Sunderland would snap back to their default – abject disappointment.

However, with the Wembley win Lee Johnson has already shown he can take Sunderland one step further than Ross. The fact he strode into the trophy cabinet at the SoL and displayed the shiny silver EFL Cup proves it. But, there are other differences between the first failed promotion push under the Scot and the one we’re in now.

All are reasons to be hopeful...

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy - Final 2021 - Wembley Stadium
The Wembley win signalled things may be changing.
Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

The players

Although a core of players remain since Ross’ departure, it isn’t the exact same group who shrivelled when the pressure was turned up a couple of years ago.

On paper that 2018/19 squad was good enough to get the job done; reality proved promotion was a step too far. Costly defeats when opportunity knocked just meant we closed the door on our own chance to escape the division.

Defeat at Fratton Park to Portsmouth following a Glenn Loovens’ sending off was the catalyst for a slide that Sunderland could not recover from.

This time around, however, key new additions like Dion Sanderson and Jordan Jones have shown qualities that make a difference in this league. The older guard of Max Power, Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke also look reborn under Johnson’s guidance.

Portsmouth v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One
Jones had added fresh impetus
Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The main difference now is we’re bearing witness to a unit of players all moving with a clear purpose and understanding of what their job entails. Arguably weaker in some individual positions, but overall stronger as a team.

The result? A side capable of meeting expectations.

We’re now getting something from fixtures that we should be.

When the white-hot heat is turned up there is a cool resolve about the manner in which we approach matches. A game management that was simply not evident under Ross. We are seeing games out and in doing so frustrating the opposition. Another feather in the cap for Lee Johnson.


The new owner

Louis-Dreyfus’ arrival at the club has also helped cleanse the palate after tasting bitter loss on so many occasions. Stewart Donald’s divisive reign is no longer the distraction off the pitch and it’s stark how much more positive it feels with him no longer at the helm.

The new ownership, the broader appointments made since and the Wembley win are the metaphorical wiping clean of the slate, which had become tarnished by years of neglect.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One - Stadium of Light
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’s arrival has had a positive impact on everyone
Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

Lee Johnson

A pragmatic tactician, he is capable of getting the best out of his playing squad. Johnson has been forced to utilise a makeshift defence for longer than he would like, but generally speaking he sets up Sunderland to play to their collective strengths and doesn’t seem afraid to make changes mid game. It’s testament to his skills as Head Coach that he has achieved so much in such a short time.

Let’s not forget that COVID spread through the playing squad early in his tenure. Sure, other teams experienced a similar fate but not many clubs had a new manager trying to inculcate his own methods at the same time.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One
Johnson’s approach is the polar opposite of Parkinson’s rigidity
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

It’s also surprising to see how adept we have become in changing formations mid game. It’s not something that should be taken for granted. Not for us anyway. We only have to hark back to a pre-season spent experimenting with three at the back under Ross, only to be abandoned after 45 minutes of the season’s opener, to understand that.

The international break has perhaps come at the right time, a chance to rest up and recover following an intense period in our fixture list.

Again, we’ve been at these crossroads in the season before. Points in time where if the opportunity is seized they become defining moments.

This team though is grabbing hold of those moments and making them count.

Let’s hope it continues.

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