2021 was certainly not a dull year for Sunderland AFC and everyone connected with it.
A new majority shareholder, a Wembley victory, a playoff semi-final defeat; a summer transfer overhaul that was much-needed and has undoubtedly paid dividends, and now, an impressive sequence of results that has established us among the league’s front runners, and united the fanbase behind a team that looks to have as good a chance as we’ve ever had of escaping the third tier and securing a place in the Championship.
In some ways, that we have reached 2022 in such a positive position could be viewed as quite surprising.
If you cast your mind back to the aftermath of the miserable October South Yorkshire double-header, for example, in which we lost two matches against Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday by an aggregate score of 8-1, the picture seemed uncertain at best, and even with the season still in its infancy, the murmurings of us not being promotion challengers were there.
At the time, Lee Johnson was under immense pressure, question marks were swirling around the players and whether they were good enough, and there was much opining that although things had changed on the surface, the same old mental weaknesses had not been addressed.
At the time, I wrote about the importance of the club’s hierarchy holding their nerve and breaking the cycle of hiring and firing that had not resulted in any real success. There was never any suggestion that Johnson’s position was under any threat, and fortunately, the external noise was ignored by those paid to make the key decisions.
Since then, we have been on an upward trajectory, albeit with one or two setbacks along the way, but the general picture is one of improvement and the construction of a slow-burning promotion challenge that, with some savvy transfer business this month, could grow stronger & stronger as the weeks go by.
Injuries have certainly bitten hard recently, and a cursory glance at recent substitutes’ benches proves it, but the frontline first-team players have responded to the challenge with gusto.
We acquitted ourselves superbly against a quality opponent during the Arsenal league cup tie and showed absolutely no after-effects from the game during our next league outing, easing past Doncaster 3-0.
I think this demonstrates a clear shift in mindset, doubtless instilled by Johnson, which seems to be: enjoy the big occasions when they come, but refocus swiftly for the games that follow.
So, what might 2022 bring, if all goes well and momentum continues to build?
With 22 league games remaining and no distractions by way of cup competitions, all focus can remain fixed on maintaining a promotion challenge. There is no doubt that, with such a strong team spirit, and the coaches and players operating as one tightly-knitted unit, we are in as positive a state as we have been for some time.
The path to the Championship will not be an easy one, however. Points will be dropped as teams jostle for position, and there will be games where things don’t go our way, but as we’ve done in previous promotion-winning campaigns, how we respond to such setbacks will be key. Goals conceded & draws or losses don’t have to constitute a crisis as long as we park them quickly and move on, fans and players alike.
There are other possibilities to look forward to, as well, not least the possible arrival, at the time of writing, of Manchester City’s ex-Celtic forward Patrick Roberts, and rumours of Trai Hume arriving from Linfield.
Ross Stewart seems well-placed to hit a rich vein of goalscoring form, the continued improvement of Dan Neil is going to be special, and on top of that, could we lure Thorben Hoffmann, Leon Dajaku, and Callum Doyle to Wearside on permanent transfers?
The latter may be earmarked for future success at Man City, but could a deal, possibly sweetened with a buyback clause, be brokered that sees him make a move? We could represent the perfect environment for him to continue his impressive development and I’m confident that he would be keen to stay if possible, as well.
Hoffmann & Dajaku, meanwhile, seem to be fully invested in the club, and if we could secure their services on long-term deals, that would certainly show the ambition that many are seeking. They could be two key players in what is shaping up to be the young & dynamic squad we’ve needed for a long time.
Suffice it to say, there could be exciting times coming on Wearside.
Saturday’s visit to Wycombe will be a tough assignment, but with confidence high and the players on the leading edge of an impressive unbeaten run, there is much to be optimistic about, and the challenge of this game, as well as those that follow, should be embraced.