We’ve been here before - as recently as two years ago, in fact. But the familiarity of Sunderland’s current situation does not make it any less painful, or easier to accept.
Back in 2019, it was a kamikaze 5-4 home reverse to Coventry that ultimately triggered a decline that resulted in us missing out on automatic promotion, and a gut-wrenching Wembley playoff defeat to Charlton. Back then, the argument was that the squad was too good for this division, and that failure to secure an instant return to the Championship represented a dismal failure.
Fast forward two years, and the post-Wembley cries of ‘Ross Out’ have become references to ‘Streaky Lee Johnson’. Different manager, same scenario. Automatic promotion in our hands, and (seemingly) thrown away with a meagre return of one point from the previous nine on offer, capped off by this desperate defeat against a team who have now taken six points from us this season - a game we dared not lose, and somehow, we did.
Was this the logical consequence of being forced to chase for much of the season? Did we simply leave ourselves with too much to do after dispensing with Phil Parkinson and hiring Johnson? Perhaps, but Johnson cannot be absolved of blame. This is his project now, and he must shoulder some of the responsibility.
And yet, for a while, it looked positive. Of course, losing at home to Charlton last Saturday was a blow, but surely this was the ideal opportunity to put that behind us and maintain the pressure on the top two.
When the team was announced, Lee Johnson’s decision to field Aiden McGeady, Jordan Jones, and Jack Diamond was encouraging. It felt like an ‘all-out-attack’ kind of selection, and with Bailey Wright returning and Denver Hume back in the picture, it was all set up for the kind of morale-boosting victory that we were seeking.
For thirty five minutes of the first half, we played extremely well, with Diamond in particular looking to make things happen whenever he got the ball, and McGeady enjoying plenty of freedom to roam and probe. There appeared to be no real hangover from the Charlton game, and it was certainly a bright start from the Lads, albeit without creating a raft of clear-cut chances.
Eventually, our positive build-up play bore fruit, as Charlie Wyke stroked home a neat finish from a pinpoint McGeady pass, ending his mini goal-drought and giving us that crucial breakthrough. It was the perfect time for Wyke to rediscover his touch in front of goal, and he showed no signs of a lack of confidence in doing so.
Ten minutes later, all of our hard work was undone. A Wigan corner eventually fell to the feet of Will Keane following a minor scramble, who stabbed home, thanks to a largely static Sunderland defence. All of our good work had been undone yet again, and more worryingly, the defensive solidity that defined Johnson’s tenure up to now appears to have vanished. Hopefully, as the likes of Wright and Hume regain match fitness, our defence will once again settle down into a cohesive unit. Nevertheless, 1-1 at half-time was not the kind of scoreline we were hoping for.
The second half was, frankly, an absolute abomination.
Positive, creative attacking play became insipid and stodgy, the defence started to wobble alarmingly, and our midfield simply became non-functional. Quite what was said in the dressing room at half-time, only the players know, but the contrast from the first forty-five was simply staggering. When the usually unflappable Dion Sanderson starts to play nervously, you know that things are starting to go pear-shaped.
Wigan’s eventual winner was scored with just over half an hour left, as Viv-Solomon Otabor evaded our defence to set up his teammate, Callum Lang, for an easy tap-in. Johnson’s calling card, his quadruple substitution, came shortly thereafter but in the situation, it felt like an utterly panicked measure, and ultimately made little difference as we proceeded to blunder our way through the final thirty minutes without carving out any genuine chances - barring headers from Ross Stewart and Luke O’Nien, both of which missed the target.
As the clock ticked down and Twitter lit up with the kind of opinions you would expect, horrible echoes of that ultimately-futile 2018/2019 season were growing ever louder.
Make no mistake, this was a truly crushing defeat, in terms of fallout, if not in scoreline.
Automatic promotion, barring a truly miraculous turn of events, is gone, and it feels as though we need to prepare ourselves for a playoff run.
Nobody will relish that, of course, but it does give us a chance to grab that third promotion spot, and despite it being the ‘backdoor’ route, success over two semi-finals and one final would be good enough, so strong is the desire to escape this division.
This is undoubtedly the first genuine setback of the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus era, but I do think it is important to consider the bigger picture.
Promotion is not make-or-break now, as it would have been under the ownership of Stewart Donald, but another season in this division will appeal to virtually nobody.
It seems certain that changes will be made this summer, regardless of which division we are in. This season is by no means done and dusted, but we are going to have to dig extremely deep, and lay some ghosts to rest if our main target is to be achieved.