This season has been tough, hasn’t it?
From the early optimism of a decent start to the fallow period that saw the end of the Phil Parkinson era. Then Lee Johnson came in and, after a few weeks, we went on a superb run that prompted dreams of the automatic positions... which was quickly followed by a poor run that meant we had to settle for the play-offs.
I’m a huge fan of the play-offs... just not when Sunderland are involved. I think they’re a very good idea and they keep things exciting – the league stays open for a lot of teams in the mid-table positions and gives the league a kind of mini-cup competition for a shot at glory.
I suppose that’s the neutral perspective – but for Sunderland, the play-offs have been nothing but torture. From Tony Cascarino and Gillingham to Patrick Bauer and Charlton, via Clive Mendonca’s hat-trick and Neil Shipperley’s push on Poom, they’ve not been good to us.
However, play-off success would be a perfect tonic to a challenging season. It wouldn’t just mean the end of League One, the first step of the rebuild completed and ending the play-off curse.
It would mean feeling joyous about Sunderland AFC for the first time in a long time.
I’ve found it very difficult to ‘keep the faith’ during lockdown. Not just because we’ve not had the success that we wanted on the field, but because I’ve missed so much of the matchday experience. When you go to the matches, we all get frustrated at the shortcomings on the pitch and we all vent our anger in different ways but ultimately it’s still something you look forward to.
Then there are the little parts of the routine. Jumping on the bus, meeting your mates and having a catch-up, a few (or more than a few) beers, getting a bit of food and then the walk to the ground. Having a laugh. In truth, the build-up is often better than the football. Then the away games, travelling down, seeing a new place or ground and the banter that goes with being away fan – it’s second to none.
When you remove these from your life it takes a massive part of the experience away from me. Watching the game on the screen will never be a substitute. It’s not so bad watching your team win, but when you lose and go through a bad run it really hits home how difficult this period is for all Sunderland fans.
Although it’s not as if it was that much easier before the lockdown.
In 2016/17 we had the depressing season under David Moyes. His personal negativity, players refusing to play, a lack of confidence, bottom all season and then relegation from the Premier League.
Then the year later, relegation again from the Championship. Failure by Grayson, Coleman et al and it was all shown on Netflix. Dropping to the third tier under new owners, Donald and co was meant to be the rebirth of the club. Instead, Jack Ross failed to get us automatically promoted and we limped to a painful play-off final defeat. Last season 19/20 didn’t even get finished... the season curtailed because of the pandemic and we finished in the lowest position in our history.
I think we’re in a no-win situation in League One. If we win games and do well people will say ‘Well Sunderland should be doing well in that league’. If we struggle it looks twice as bad given the size of the club at this level, particularly in comparison to some of our opponents. Ultimately, fans will only be truly satisfied with a League One season if it ends in promotion.
The play-offs offer a chance therefore at redemption. Happiness almost.
I feel I’ve covered enough of the negatives. The positives are that, on our day, we can beat anybody. We’ve proven that in the four games against the top two – we lost none of them.
We’ve got matchwinners in the squad. Charlie Wyke has scored for fun this season. Aiden McGeady at times looks too good for this level. Lynden Gooch already has a Wembley winner this season, Chris Maguire is capable of rising to the occasion and the likes of Ross Stewart and Aiden O’Brien have a big part to play.
We might not even need three wins. A draw at Sincil Bank against Lincoln away in the first leg will be decent. Beat them at the Stadium of Light in the return leg would see us off to the Final for a winner-takes-all match for promotion.
It’s really up for grabs.
I always think those that grasp the opportunity are life’s winners. For Sunderland, it’s there in front of them now. Let's hope they go and take the opportunity and wring every little bit out of it.
We all know it would mean so, so much.