Across the bars of Central London between swigs of cold beers, thousands of Mackems discuss an enthralling playoff win over Wycombe in the spring evening sunshine.
Perhaps more philosophically talking about what the Championship might have in store for us next (this) season.
If you had posed the question of the 2022/23 season to Sunderland fans in June, even the most optimistic amongst them would have responded with themes of survival, stability and consolidation.
Yet we sit after a defeat to Blackburn as a fanbase somewhat split on our league position, form and aspirations for the season.
For every fan that considers midtable and a 5-5-5 record a positive, solid start with a third of the season done… there will be another unsatisfied with the team being outside the playoffs and bemoaning that we are one win in six and goalless in three across that stretch.
For many, the goalposts moved with Sunderland’s great start to the season. Surprise and delight have turned into proclamations that the Championship isn’t as good as we anticipated and that a push for top 6 is a must.
The turmoil of abruptly losing Alex Neil didn’t quash the expectation for long, nor did the prospect of playing without a striker after the second-half demolition of Reading.
A better than expected start to the season has raised hopes, but as a newly promoted team in arguably the most competitive division in Europe, are we grasping for something out of our reach?
21 teams have been promoted from to the Championship in the last 7 years. Of those;
- 1 in 3 were relegated straight back down to League one,
- Only two finished inside the top 10 in their first season,
- None of them finished in the playoffs
The average finishing position for a newly promoted team is 18th. When following this new exciting and youthful Sunderland team, it’s easy to forget the four years spent as a League One team with predominantly League One players. The club from top to bottom is going through an evolution, and things on the football pitch are not immune from that.
It’s fantastic that after 15 games, we sit in a position to even have this debate. It’s equally brilliant that apart from Swansea and ‘Boro, we have been more than competitive for large parts of every game this season. The loss at the Riverside aside, our four other defeats have come against Norwich, Sheffield United, Swansea and Blackburn and what do all those teams have in common? - They were all in the Top 6 when we played them.
This isn’t meant to be taken as negative, but whilst being exciting and competitive (in part at least) in every game this season, the reality is that Sunderland have come up short when playing a team in the top 6. Maybe that’s just where we are as a young developing team - and that is okay!
The next two games will test the theory further as we take on Burnley and Luton (also in the playoff places), rounding off a very tough October. Don’t be disheartened if we come away from those two games with only a point, if it means we go into the World Cup break with 7+ points from the three remaining games.
Yes we should always be striving to be better and to finish as high up the table as we can, but if we go through the season with the same sort of form, we’ll finish somewhere between 62-65 points. Across the last seven seasons, this is good enough for a 9th/10th place finish.
If we end up 9th/10th, yes we’ll have missed out on the playoffs, but we will also have achieved something that out of the last 21 newly-promoted teams, only Sheffield United and Millwall accomplished - a Top 10 finish. Maybe we are a team growing into Championship challengers but aren’t quite there yet… and that is okay!
As Tony Mowbray alluded, as long as we are competitive, entertaining and trying to win every game, Sunderland are a team to get behind and cheer for.
It’s something we’ve not had for a long time. So enjoy being out of the third tier, embrace it; and watch this young team try and do their best for us… If that turns out to be not quite enough for playoffs this season - that is absolutely okay.