So, after a season of upheaval, a change of ownership and a Wembley triumph, we are entering the final stages of the campaign. With ten games left on Sunderland’s schedule, and a mere three points separating League One’s top three, it is going to be a frenzied dash to the finishing line.
For us, it begins with a double-header this Easter weekend, the results of which will, in all probability, have a significant bearing on our final league position.
First on the agenda are Oxford, who will arrive at the SOL on Friday with playoff ambitions of their own, and then it’s down to Peterborough on Monday, for a crunch fixture against a team who have been among the league’s pacesetters for the majority of the season. Both teams will pose a stiff test, and if ever the phrase ‘season-defining games’ could be used with conviction, it is surely now.
Looking further ahead, our run-in also contains some tricky fixtures against the likes of Hull and Blackpool, but we should not be burdened by fear and we can’t lose sight of what’s happening here and now. The prize of Championship football will be hard-earned, and if we can take maximum points from these first two games, not only will promotion be on the agenda, the possibility of winning the title will be too.
When on form, we can be a match for anyone, and with the likes of Denver Hume, Bailey Wright, and Jordan Jones on the comeback trail, we may well have the comfort of knowing that we can field a near full-strength team and bench for the run-in.
There is little doubt that, in recent weeks and months, the club has been completely reborn. Where once there was discord on Twitter, there is now unity, and a feeling that the future will be bright. We all know that, when this football club and its fans are truly unified, great things can happen, and make no mistake, we are on the verge of something great happening this season. Winning at Wembley whetted the appetite, and securing Championship football would be the dream ending.
And yet, for some time, the picture was altogether bleaker.
During the darkest days of Phil Parkinson’s ill-fated final weeks as manager, specifically last autumn, when it appeared as though an injection of genuine optimism was as unlikely as us turning in an exciting performance, did anyone honestly think we would find ourselves this close to the automatic promotion places when spring arrived? The turnaround in the team’s form has been truly remarkable.
Looking beyond his shark analogies and funky acronyms, Lee Johnson has had a genuinely seismic impact on the team’s fortunes: indecision in our play has been replaced with conviction, and a safety-first approach has been ditched in favour of a positive, attack-minded style. With the finishing line almost in sight, there is no indication that he will waver from his football philosophy at this stage, and that might be the spur we need. If the manager believes in what he is doing, the team will too, and that is a potent mixture.
One major change in recent weeks has been in the team’s mentality. It has taken a while, but the squad has finally adopted a no-nonsense, businesslike attitude that has undoubtedly helped us to eke out crucial results, as we did against Bristol Rovers, when we haven’t been at our best.
To see Max Power cajoling and encouraging his teammates at every turn is to see a captain who has grown into the role superbly, and the likes of Dion Sanderson, Carl Winchester and Lee Burge have also stood tall.
They have embraced the challenge, and now their job is to see it through.
For a historical benchmark ahead of the upcoming double-header, we can look back to the Easter of 2007, when Roy Keane took the Lads to the south coast to play a much-fancied Southampton team, in a game hyped up by Sky Sports as a clash between two promotion hopefuls.
Keane, like Johnson, did not enjoy a genuinely blistering start to life in the SOL dugout, and he certainly took some time to fully implement his desired style of play, but eventually, he was rewarded, and by the spring of ‘07, we were a force to be reckoned with.
As expected, the game at St Mary’s was a tight and tense affair, but two glorious strikes from Carlos Edwards & Grant Leadbitter eventually sealed the victory for us. In the aftermath, belief skyrocketed, and we eventually surfed the wave all the way to the Championship title and a place in the Premier League.
We did it then, and I have no doubt we can do it now.
Last summer, I was adamant that we needed to try and set the pace at the summit of the league, because our ability to chase teams down was questionable. Thus far, we have done a superb job in doing just that, and if by this time next week we are six points better off, those who have renewed their season tickets may well begin to dream of Championship football come August.