For a third successive time, Sunderland just didn’t do enough to clinch their ultimate target of promotion.
In 2019, it was the disastrous play-off final defeat to Charlton. 2020 was the season of the controversial points-per-game ratio.
In some respects, this season feels worse.
After the arrival of Lee Johnson in December 2020, the ship was steadied and we went on a strong run, which we just couldn’t sustain.
But the damage was arguably already done before Johnson’s arrival.
From the off the team looked shaky in both the attacking and defensive areas. The opening day draw against Bristol Rovers - a team that would go onto finish bottom of the League One table – set the tone for a start in which Sunderland just did not look confident in attack.
They only netted 17 goals from the first 13 matches before Phil Parkinson was sacked on November 29th, but despite wins over Oxford, Peterborough and Ipswich, the team never capitalised on those results against our promotion rivals.
Parkinson’s dull approach caught up with him and results began to plateau during the final stages of his Sunderland career.
With news filtering around Wearside of an imminent takeover, the arrival of Lee Johnson was greeted by a defeat to Wigan, but there were more promising signs a week later. A brilliant counter-attacking performance, characterised by flair, pace and quality at Sincil Bank showed glimpses of what Johnson’s side could do.
From January to March, after an enforced COVID absence, the team ground out results, with a solid defence proving the bedrock. But, man after man, defenders dropped out of the picture; first Wright, then Willis, then Sanderson.
After sitting third, only three points off the leaders, at the start of April, the team managed to finish 13 points adrift. Ultimately, Sunderland simply weren’t good enough.
The major turning point appeared at the DW Stadium. After a decent opening spell, the Black Cats lost so much of their concentration and composure to a Wigan side that simply showed greater desire.
The season-ending injury to Dion Sanderson only compounded the disappointment. Consequently, the defence became leaky, and at the same time the goals at the other end seemed to dry up. Lapses in concentration became the norm and it seemed opponents didn’t need to do too much to break through what a few weeks before had been a solid defensive structure.
Should we have expected this? Maybe. Bristol City supporters labelled the Sunderland head coach, as “streaky Lee” during his time at Ashton Gate.
And then, the dreaded play-offs.
In hindsight. the first leg at Sincil Bank did the damage – however, the team got themselves right back into the tie in the second leg, only for missed chances and a shambolic refereeing performance proving decisive in deciding who would play Blackpool on Sunday.
But, there is hope.
The final whistle saw applause for the effort and desire that the players had shown to try and pull themselves back into the tie.
The fans will – hopefully – be there every step of the way next season, and they will be needed as the 12th man both at home and on their travels.
Boardroom failures have cost the Black Cats dear in recent years, however, with Kyril Louis-Dreyfus steadying the ship, we can hopefully get back to where we ultimately belong.
Louis-Dreyfus is looking for the club to have a long-term, sustainable plan behind the scenes and a team that gives the fans something to shout about – and be proud of – on a Saturday afternoon.
Pace, physicality and a bold outlook are just three things that need to be translated onto the pitch, with the retained list portraying the task that lies ahead.
Players that have been consistently around the squad over the past couple of seasons are gone, with Johnson ready to build a team of his own.
He requires players with invention and creativity because – and it’s been said before – Sunderland desperately need promotion next season.