Fate will deal us a very unusual hand when, on Saturday 22nd May, fans are allowed back into the Stadium of Light for the L1 playoff semi-final second leg against Lincoln City. It will be our final home game of this marathon campaign, but also the first chance to greet Lee Johnson, Kyril-Louis Dreyfus and the Sunderland players in person after a season of behind-closed-doors football.
A very peculiar quirk, but in the COVID era, nothing should surprise us anymore.
Indeed, taking everything into account, this season has been like no other.
On one hand, it has flashed by in the blink of an eye, but on the other, it feels as though we have played far, far more games than we actually have.
With that in mind, having fans in attendance once again will feel like a giant stride back towards normality. Against the backdrop of empty stadiums and eerie, soulless atmospheres, Sunderland have occasionally impressed, regularly stuttered, and often blundered as our encouraging post-January form faded away and we finished up in the playoffs for the second time in three League One campaigns.
Psychologically, you would certainly hope that the return of fans (10,000 is the number who will be admitted to the stadium) will provide the players with an extra impetus to ensure that a place in the playoff final is secured.
For the likes of Chris Maguire, who undoubtedly thrives on having a raucous crowd to feed off, and Jordan Jones, whose skills and tricks could delight a packed stadium, it can and should be of great assistance to them.
If we can snatch a victory in the first leg at Sincil Bank a week on Wednesday, it is all set up beautifully for the Lads to finish the job three days later, roared on by what will doubtless be a highly-charged crowd. Despite the disappointment at missing out on automatic promotion, and the inevitable trepidation that many feel ahead of the playoffs, I am certain that, by kickoff time in the second leg, every single spectator in attendance will be as ‘up for it’ as it is possible to be.
On the subject of the supporters, one point that has grabbed the attention this season is that of the ‘empty stadium factor’, and whether that has been responsible for Sunderland’s frustratingly patchy home form this season.
There is a long-standing, and deeply flawed argument, that fan expectations at Sunderland are too high, and that the players often struggle to perform due to the crushing pressure placed on them from those who pass through the turnstiles on matchdays.
I don’t believe that is true.
If that was the case, and we were guilty of putting the players under too much pressure, Sunderland wouldn’t have beaten Wolves in 1999 to secure a vital win that kept us on course for automatic promotion, and we certainly wouldn’t have won that game against Burnley in 2007 that ultimately secured our return to the top-flight under Roy Keane. In those games, we had players with the mental strength to stay the course. Many of our current squad were on the Wembley pitch when Charlton beat us in the 2019 final.
Will they still bear the scars, or will it be different this time?
Simply put, when playing for Sunderland, you either rise to the challenge or you wilt, and for this squad of players, the play-offs represents their final chance to leave any kind of legacy at the club. Many of them are playing for new contracts, and some won’t be here next season. Ending the playoff hoodoo and snatching that third promotion berth would be the ideal ending for those who are moving on to pastures new.
The last time we saw a game at the SOL in person, a sickening last-minute winner was conceded to Gillingham, and the post-match mood was one of anger at letting two points slip. A lot has changed, both on and off the field since then, but our desire to see Championship football back on Wearside has undoubtedly grown.
Next Saturday, when the turnstiles are clicking and the atmosphere is building once again, everyone will be standing as one, and that can be something very powerful indeed.