After Sunderland won convincingly at Plymouth and finally ended a barren run of seven games without a victory, we could all collectively breathe more easily.
The fixture with Northampton that followed was a nothing game and it showed, with players trying to avoid injury.
Play-offs are clearly a lottery, as we found out to our cost at Wembley in 2018, 1998, and most famously in Division Two against Swindon in 1990.
As we head into the play-offs this time around, many fans see the team as having blown it, as we were on course for the top two places, being unbeaten in the previous 14 matches.
The Government’s next easing of lockdown regulations is due to take place on May 17, Norwegian Independence Day, meaning that supporters should be present for both matches, especially the Viking ones (!).
So the thoroughly Anglo-Saxon “Streaky” Lee Johnson will finally experience some sort of manifestation of the Roker Roar, and about time too. I believe that experience will further cement his relationship with the club, its fans, the whole amazing, unique sporting package that is Sunderland AFC.
Why “Streaky” you may ask? Well, I asked a friend, ex-pat Brit, Minneapolis resident and dyed-in-the-wool Bristol City fan Paul John Martin, whose team underachieved this season, to write a couple of paragraphs on why the nickname does not relate at all to bacon.
His retort was: “I don’t need two paragraphs. It was simply that his team used to go on streaks, 6 or 8 wins, then 6 or 8 defeats. If we could have burst out of that pattern, we might have been promoted. Or relegated. On balance, he kept us in a good position, but could never make the last step.”
So, a manager who currently has a lower PPG at 1.65 than predecessor Phil Parkinson’s 1.77, but arguably has a much more positive style of football, now needs to step up and get us into the Championship. That is where the club’s newly-found riches from new ownership in the shape of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus can build a solid, exciting future for the club.
How is that going to be achieved, with time and injury pressures on the team, when fans and our youthful, honorary Mackem majority owner doubtless demand success?
The answer lies, in finding that must-have attribute for successful Sunderland players.
The key ingredient for a successful Sunderland player?
We are now yet again collectively experiencing the contrasting emotions that come with being Sunderland fans. So, the key, axiomatic question is: what do we as fans expect of Sunderland players, who pull on the striped shirt we would all sweat blood to wear personally on that hallowed Stadium of Light turf?
What is the most important trait we demand from the Black Cats’ team and its individual players?
One word: INTENSITY.
In my view, it has been a while since we have experienced true intensity around the SoL or at away games. This is not just because fans have been absent; I am referring to the stunning end-of-season winning sequence under Sam Allardyce in 2016, part of the Defoe goal-rich season that ended in safety...
...or a few years prior to that, the fantastic “Miracle” for Gus Poyet:
Poyet somehow conjured up that staggering run that took us from 25 points and rock bottom of the best league in the world after 32 games, to safety and 38 points after 37 games.
It was something unique, something special, a connection between the players and the fans.
The famed “They shall not pass” mentality, a phrase most famously used during the Battle of Verdun in the First World War. “No-one gets through our defensive wall.” (That does not refer to passing the ball, by the way).
We saw some of the intensity in the two-leg play-off semi-final against Portsmouth at this stage two years ago with that memorable Maguire hit in the first leg, and a second clean sheet at a goalless, but victorious, Fratton Park. Revenge from a year earlier.
I was contemplating that topic of commitment to the cause a couple of months or so ago in a Black Cats context after I read about Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi being brought on as a half-time substitute, but dragged off again after 76 minutes, as reported by the BBC website on February 20th.
Manager Thomas Tuchel was quoted as saying: “I was not happy with his attitude, energy and counter-pressing. I took him off and we demand 100%, I feel he is not in the right shape to help us. It was a hard decision…”
Tuchel added: “Everyone has to understand that I make decisions to win games and there is no problem that he makes mistakes and has a bad game, but we can’t lack energy even 10% or 5%. He knows what I demand from him and when he doesn’t reach this level, it’s a hard decision.”
Since then, the Chelsea manager has proved himself by taking the Blues to the FA Cup and Champions League Finals with two memorable wins over Manchester City and Real Madrid.
So, what exactly is footballing intensity?
Intensity, then, is playing with total heart and commitment to the cause, sweating blood for the team since it such a major honour to wear that shirt.
Pulling on a Sunderland shirt is a huge privilege and should bring out the best emotions and competitive streak in players. Obviously, we expect them all to pull together, show focused effort, and be much more than the sum of their parts.
Tuchel, then, is very demanding of his talented players, but I can also see that in Lee Johnson. Even when we win, he wants to see improvements in attitude and application from his players.
We have had five centre-halves out through injury for most of the season but are still just three games away from the Championship, as others have emphasised on these pages.
To finish, I will try again to define intensity of play, tactics and a no-fear mentality:
Our last FA Cup win.