“Lost count of the times Sunderland have hit the skids at this time of year. Out of the blue. I can remember it back to the late 70’s. They were flying these last few weeks and now it’s 1 point out of 9. Ran out of steam, just as they did after the last EFL Trophy final.”
...so texted a friend of mine minutes after the final whistle at Wigan Athletic.
Typical Sunderland immediately came to mind, but the more I thought about the comments, the more I thought of the past few months, and the change of mood from one of scepticism and fear of failure to one of positivity and optimism.
Two defeats, and the mood doesn’t just shift - it catapults off the cliff, and suddenly it’s doom and gloom again. Automatic promotion clearly does look like a big ask now, but promotion, albeit via the play offs, is still within Sunderland’s grasp.
Only a month or so ago, many fans and pundits were looking at the win at Wembley and happily saying that the Wembley hoodoo has been lifted - boding well should Sunderland find themselves back there in the play-off final. It was only a few months before the final many felt the play-offs were Sunderland’s best hope of promotion.
The run that has seen Sunderland push themselves to the cusp of the top two was a bonus. It’s still achievable, as both Peterborough and Hull have some tricky fixtures, and Sunderland may well have had their hiccup.
The two matches against Blackpool and the match at Hull are critical. But they always were. Hull won’t relish their run in having seen Wigan beat Sunderland. Hull have to face Lincoln, Wigan and then Charlton at the Valley on the last day. There is plenty of margin for error in those three matches, while Peterborough have to face Charlton away and Lincoln too... and Doncaster twice. They could be forgiven for thinking that’s six points in the bag judging by Rovers current form. There-in lies a potential pitfall.
Clearly there is a concern on the back of the two defeats but we’ve been watching a Sunderland team grinding rather than sailing through matches.
There was a palpable fear of losing at Peterborough, but they ground that one out, only to lose their heads against Charlton and Wigan.
Before the Peterborough the match I was boundless in my optimism, and although it may fly in the face of the current mood, I still am.
One can point to moments in both defeats and question decision making and substitutions but fundamentally it’s the same team, the same players, the same personnel and they will all be at pains to eradicate the mistakes the led to the goals that proved so costly.
Lee Johnson hasn’t become a bad coach in the space of 72 hours. We were applauding Johnson a few weeks ago - applauding his flexibility in making substitutions; applauding the run of results and the victory at Wembley. Johnson has also been at pains to point out that it is not a three horse race for automatic promotion - a statement well made, looking at Blackpool’s form and Lincoln finding their feet again. One can’t rule out Portsmouth and Oxford, and Charlton - with a match in hand - are also well positioned.
It’s not over yet, and everything is focused on the match at Bloomfield Road.
The mood-ometer could swing right back at Blackpool and then, only then, we turn our attentions to Hull. The two defeats by Charlton and Wigan were the first consecutive defeats under Lee Johnson and Blackpool have drawn seven of their fifteen matches unbeaten. Sunderland drew only three in their run of twelve unbeaten matches.
The areas of weakness were obvious in the two defeats.
Nullify those mistakes, and there’s much to be positive about.