When Sunderland rolled over and conceded six goals against Bolton Wanderers at the end of January, few people would’ve expected the year to end as it has.
2022 has been a year when the club finally got itself back on track, and onto the road that for so long, we’d strayed from.
In reviewing this utterly enthralling year, it ultimately comes down to a three-week period in May, when the Black Cats hauled themselves from the depths of the third tier and back into the Championship.
This once-prosperous club had spent four seasons too many in League One, and the relief felt at the end of May was enormous.
It started under Lee Johnson as we looked like we’d turned a corner in late 2021, but a troubled period at the end of January and start of February saw him out of a job.
For all the criticism directed at ‘Streaky Lee’, he provided the foundations for Alex Neil to build on.
A year that ended with a successful trip to the DW Stadium was changed with a victory in Greater Manchester at the end of February, and although the 0-3 victory against the league leaders was rather unexpected, it was well-deserved. And suddenly the mood decisively shifted on Wearside.
Plenty of late goals (often from Nathan Broadhead) saw us reach the playoffs in impressive form- unbeaten in our last thirteen matches and only one defeat in our final fifteen.
For once, this had to be our time, and it was.
After the most spectacular of playoff semi-final second legs, we were back at Wembley for another shot at glory.
It was another night where the fans lit up Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square, followed by another morning of anticipation, nerves and excitement.
When Elliot Embleton fired home a twenty five-yard thunderbolt, we were in control of our own destiny, but this time, the outcome would be different to the EFL Trophy final and our previous playoff final appearance.
In truth, Wycombe struggled to lay a glove on us.
Anthony Patterson’s save to deny Sam Vokes was the only real challenge to our defence, and when Ross Stewart unleashed a low shot into the bottom corner, there was an outpouring of emotion in the stands.
Finally, promotion had been achieved.
That was the first step back to where we belong, and the second step has seemingly been taken during the final months of 2022, with a rather unpredictable opening to the Championship campaign.
Within weeks of the start of the season, Alex Neil was gone and Tony Mowbray was installed as the club’s third head coach of the year.
On the pitch, however, things didn’t change, and very rarely have we seen Sunderland blown away by the opposition.
An early red card for Dan Neil at Sheffield United swung the game in favour of the Blades, and the most dejected the Black Cats have been was arguably during the second half against runaway leaders Burnley.
However, we’ve never looked distant from our Championship rivals, and even amid a lack of strikers and an increasing injury list, Mowbray has never looked for excuses, and the team has always stood strong.
This is a side who’ve made the city proud during a year when we stamped our authority on the English footballing pyramid.
Questions will linger into 2023 about the intentions of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and his backroom team- specifically about how they’ll fully implement their plan for the club, but for now, the first step has been taken.
In the long term, 2022 will be looked back upon as transformational for the club: the year when we escaped from the third tier and made the leap into the Championship.
Sunderland AFC is on the way back.