If a week’s a long time in politics, eight days is an absolute eternity in football.
At 3pm on the 10th of April we were all confident about our tremendous run of form continuing, looking forward to sweeping Charlton and Wigan aside after we’d negotiated a tricky set of easter fixtures, and roaring our way to promotion.
Of course, our opponents had other ideas; and so began a run of three defeats – something which has never happened to us at this level before – which all but extinguished our automatic promotion chances.
On a game by game basis, every supporter will be disappointed by those results. I defy anyone to say they’re not.
We’ve gone from daring to believe to being slapped back down. The hope we dared to embrace has dissipated as fast as it came.
Every supporter will be critical of certain players who’ve maybe not done their jobs as well as they should have done, made mistakes which have either led to goals being conceded or not scored at the other end.
Every supporter will have questions about the manager’s decisions – team selection and tactics all come under scrutiny when results don’t go our way.
And that’s all fine. It’s normal. We should be pissed off about losing games at any level, never mind League One. We should be pissed off about losing three on the bounce at the most important time of the season. We should be pissed off that our automatic promotion chances have gone from being in our own hands to relying on a remarkable sequence of snookers and stuff ups from either Hull or Peterborough.
However, within the immediate frustration and disappointment, it’s important to keep the bigger picture firmly in focus.
Six months ago, if you’d offered me the scenario that we would have been taken over by a Swiss billionaire, have a long term plan off the field in place, and be entering the final five games of the season with a mathematical possibility of getting automatic promotion, I’d have absolutely snapped your hand off. Without a second thought.
The club’s in the best place off the field it’s been in for more than a decade, at least. Maybe ever, who knows.
On the field it’s a different story of course. We’re technically in one of the worst positions we’ve ever been in. We’ve got a squad built by a defensive, conservative manager and it’s showing.
The lack of goals in the team is concerning. After Charlie Wyke, our second top scorer is Grant Leadbitter with six – three of them from penalties and a fourth from a penalty rebound. Aiden McGeady and Lynden Gooch with four goals each are our second top scorers from open play (although you’d argue if they’d both started more they’d have scored more).
If you’re looking for a problem to solve in the short term, there it is.
And naturally, Lee Johnson comes under the microscope too – because that’s his problem to solve, and he’s not managed to do it yet. Although, he has got Charlie Wyke scoring, which is an achievement in itself.
His ostracisation of Maguire naturally will come under increasing scrutiny if form doesn’t pick up without the former Oxford man appearing, and his signing of Ross Stewart (who, in my opinion has potential but is ‘one for the future’) will also attract attention, given his likeness to Wyke and the glaring need for more diversity up front.
All of these off-field issues will be addressed and sorted in time. We have a sporting director and data-driven recruitment teams in place now to help the head coach figure this out. And we’ve got to put our trust in the fact they’ll do it.
But it won’t happen overnight; and that’s the challenge we have – because football’s not a game that is a natural bedfellow with patience. However, if ever there was a time for patience in our history it’s now.
In the short term, however, we’ve still got a very good chance of achieving what we set out to do, and that’s get promoted, by hook or by crook.
In some respects missing out on automatic promotion before the final moments of the season may stand us all in good stead mentally. After all, it’s not as if we’ve been banging on the automatic promotion door all season and have lost out in the final seconds. In fact, we’ve not been in the top two of the division at the end of a set of fixtures for nigh on two years.
We have five games left of the regular season and – as obvious as it sounds – the aim has to be to win them all. Let’s see where we end up. If it’s the play offs let’s make sure we’re in the very best form we can be to take them on.
I’m as desperate as the next person for us to escape League One but, you know what? If we don’t go up it’s not the end of the world at all. Because, for the first time in an awfully long time, the future’s bright for Sunderland.
We have a long-term plan. We have good people being appointed to newly created, key roles, after an extensive recruitment process. We have a focus on the academy.
Solid, real and deep foundations are being built, and in the grand scheme of things that’s what will matter longer term.
But, to paraphrase George Harrison, it takes a whole lot of patience and time to do it right.