A wise man once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Alright, it was Ferris Bueller. But the sentiment’s bang on – especially in football. And especially this year with Sunderland.
Because, exactly 12 months ago today, a Sunderland side managed by Lee Johnson and featuring Thorben Hoffmann, Frederick Alves and Tom Flanagan (with Ollie Younger, Denver Hume and Will Harris on the bench) beat Sheffield Wednesday 5-0 – with the final goal of the game being scored by Benji Kimpioka.
If you’d dared predict what would happen between then and now you’d have been rounded up and placed somewhere secure for your own good.
Lee Johnson’s sacking, Jermain Defoe’s reappearance, Mike Dodds, Alex Neil, Jermain Defoe’s disappearance, play-offs, Alex Neil slithering off to ‘better things’, Tony Mowbray’s appointment...
The odds would have been long.
Still, a mere 12 months ago, things were looking as if they were absolutely heading in the right direction.
We came into a Thursday night fixture in a buoyant mood. Despite an injury crisis that had seen Lynden Gooch deployed as a left back and Bailey Wright filling in on the other side, we’d comfortably beaten Doncaster Rovers 3-0 away from home in our first post-Christmas game, and there seemed to be a rare calm unity in the squad and around the club.
Lee Johnson’s spell in charge will be remembered by many for those two heavy away defeats in autumn – at Rotherham and then at Hillsborough.
But, since that reversal at Sheffield Wednesday on 2 November, we’d gone unbeaten in the league; six wins and three draws in the nine games that followed had moved us up to second place behind Rotherham – and with the transfer window opening, it seemed as though we were heading in the right direction.
And, on the evidence of the game one year ago today, we absolutely were.
Wednesday were nine points and six places beneath us, and revenge for the 3-0 thrashing at Hillsborough was high on the agenda. And, in front of a festive crowd of almost 35,000, the lads didn’t hold back – with Ross Stewart bagging an early goal to get the steamroller away.
Stewart latched on to Leon Dajaku’s through ball, racing past Dunkley to knock the ball home past Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the Wednesday goal. Nine minutes before half time, Stewart had doubled the lead – Alex Pritchard won the ball from Jack Hunt, and set up the Scotsman to put an angled drive into the bottom corner.
And a few minutes later, Callum Doyle made it 3-0 – heading home after Flanagan knocked back a corner. It was Doyle’s first senior goal; his only one for Sunderland, as it turned out, and his only one to date.
Because of how the season panned out, and Doyle’s lack of action in the second half of the season, it’s easy to forget just how impressive the on-loan Manchester City defender was during the first half of the season; and this game was certainly the highlight of his Sunderland career.
The second half continued in much the same way as the first – Wednesday were unable to stop Sunderland, and in particular Ross Stewart. Peacock-Farrell tried, to be fair – making a good save early in the second half to deny Stewart a hat-trick, but he couldn't do anything to prevent the former Ross County player heading home Wright’s cross to complete an excellent treble – his first of his career.
Sunderland continued to attack as Wednesday went into damage limitation mode – and added a fifth as substitute Benji Kimpioka squeezed the ball home. It was Kimpioka’s second league goal for Sunderland – his first coming more than two years earlier against Coventry during Phil Parkinson’s reign of terror – and ultimately it would be his last.
So, a 5-0 win and a place at the top of the league to round off the year.
Surely, it’d be all plain sailing from here?
Of course not. Five games and five points later, it was all change once again – and two more games against Sheffield Wednesday would go a long way in determining our season.
Sunderland 5-0 Sheffield Wednesday
Stewart 12, 36, 58, Doyle 40, Kimpioka 75
Stadium of Light, 34,652
Sunderland: Hoffmann; Wright, Flanagan, Doyle; Dajaku (Alves 80), Evans, Neil (Kimpioka 71), Gooch; Pritchard (Cirkin 63), Embleton; Stewart. Subs not used: Burge, Hume (D), Younger, Harris.
Sheffield Wednesday: Peacock-Farrell, Hunt, Mendez-Laing, Palmer, Dunkley (Brennan 29), Johnson, Wing, Bannan, Gregory (Adeniran 76), Paterson, Dele-Bashiru (Corbeanu 59). Subs not used: Wildsmith, Shodipo, Sow, Berahinho.