It really doesn’t matter how the season ended. We’ve got three games standing in between us and the Championship. Whatever our thoughts are on any aspect of the club, promotion is what we all want. And to get it the team and the manager will have to show a tremendous strength of character and a huge amount of bravery.
Remember the name?
There’s no shame if you don’t. In truth, he barely made an impression at first-team level for Sunderland.
As a striker coming through during Marco Gabbiadini’s pomp, he had a tough hand to play.
A graduate of the youth team, he managed to make 10 starts over three or four seasons, scored a single goal, and went on to have a very successful career in the lower reaches of Scottish football.
His third ever start came 21 years ago almost to the day, when we headed to the council-owned ground of our delightful neighbours for the second leg of the play-offs.
Thanks to Paul Hardyman’s red card for kicking John Burridge’s head in the general direction of The Blue Bell, space had opened up on the left-hand side of midfield. Pre-match, it seemed to be a choice between Kieron Brady and Brian Atkinson; Tony Cullen and Anthony Smith the other options mooted in the press.
However, manager Denis Smith sprang a selection surprise by deploying Hawke out of position, primarily for his energy and work rate. It was a brave decision. A bold one.
And it worked.
For the Sunderland of 2021 to succeed, it’s going to take a fair amount of bravery from everyone concerned – from how the players tackle the challenge ahead, and how Lee Johnson approaches it tactically and from a selection perspective.
While I wouldn’t expect any sweeping changes, there could be some big calls – particularly if Ross Stewart is fit. Moving Luke O’Nien out of defence seems, on the surface, to be too big a risk to take. But could it be an ace up Johnson’s sleeve? I do feel we’ve become a bit too predictable, and mixing it up a bit in midfield could remedy that.
From a players’ perspective, these games will likely be the last a number of them will play for the club. How they’re remembered will be determined by the coming weeks. Will they disappear as failures, never to be seen again? Or will they fight tooth and nail to ensure they’re remembered fondly; the hard-working group that got us back from the abyss?
As fans, too – we need to embrace the play-offs, something that we’ve not necessarily done in the past. We might not like it, but we’re here, and these games are vitally, vitally important.
Collectively, we need to be bold. We need to be brave. We need to show character. We need to be together. We need to seize this opportunity, and we need to go for it. We need to see Johnson and the team approach the games with serious intent.
We’re Sunderland. We’re in League One. And – say what you want about arrogance – we shouldn’t be here.
As we go into these games, past performances – individual and collective – matter little. Form matters not.
Yes, we’ve been on a poor run of results, and let’s not sugar coat it, the games we’ve played since the big man was resurrected have been hugely disappointing.
However, it’s inconsequential. We’ve all seen teams in form come into the play-offs and lose.
Only four years ago Huddersfield went into the championship play-offs on the back of collecting 10 points from their final ten games – just as we have – and emerged victoriously.
It’s a one-off two-legged game, a cup tie, but I don’t buy into it being a lottery – it’s completely in our control, and I truly believe we have the players and manager to help us succeed.
And, of course, we’ve got the added bonus of having the crowd back for the second leg – a huge, huge advantage. If one good thing’s come out of the past 14 months it’s that we’ve finally dispelled this nonsense about the home support being detrimental to the team. Yes, we can be a tough crowd, but we really don’t ask for much.
However, whether we do go up or not this time round, it was interesting to hear Kristjaan Speakman talk on the club podcast this week about the strategy being deployed behind the scenes, with the new appointments in data and recruitment settling in and building a model of what we need in each position. Succession plans for each position? Yes, you heard correctly. We’ve actually got a plan.
Of course, the interview was well-timed, hopefully dampening the reactionary mutterings about Lee Johnson and reassuring us all that it’s not the case of promotion-or-bust as it was two seasons ago. It reaffirmed the long-term vision and plan being implemented at the club, and it’s an important message to put across, and for everyone connected with the club to understand.
Johnson’s got an enormous job on his hands and whichever division we’re in next season he’s going to have an incredibly busy summer.
But it’ll be a summer with far more structure, intent and planning than we endured last year.
Last summer seems a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? But if you remember, the players and majority of the staff were on furlough, only recalled to start pre-season training when many other teams had already played a friendly or two.
We had the debacle over season card refunds, with Jim Rodwell embarrassing himself every turn he took.
We had the EFL’s ridiculous (and, it turns out, illegal) salary cap to contend with, which certainly knocked a few signings we had lined up on the head. Whether they’d have been any good or not anyway is debatable – the management team had already decided Danny Graham was the striker we needed to get promoted.
We had Parkinson’s rigid, overly structured brand of football, which failed to inspire anyone, and of course, we had the Chuckle Brothers at the helm.
From what we can gather through interviews with the likes of Speakman and Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, and the whispers we hear about what’s going on behind the scenes, everything’s being put in place to build a successful team and a successful club. We’re doing things properly.
For the first time in a long time, we’re on the right track, but it’s going to take a fair bit of time, and some serious patience now and again, to get to where we want to get to.
But, if we show the requisite character and bravery over the coming weeks and really go for it, we can start the first real chapter of the KLD era in the Championship. And wouldn’t that speed things up a bit?
The rest of this month isn’t necessarily a defining one in our history, but it certainly could be decisive in the shorter term.
This is a huge opportunity. A massive week in the history of this wonderful football club of ours. This wonderful football club that our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents stood and supported. This wonderful football club that runs through our veins.
While opinions of what we actually believe is best for the club often – naturally – differ, the fact is we all do want the same thing. We all want what’s best for the club. We all want to see a successful team, a club we can be proud of. A club that does things in the right way. A club that wins.
Hopefully, we can take the first steps towards regaining that this week.
And while I’m nervous as all hell, I just can’t wait.
Ha’way, ha’way, ha’way!