As the final whistle blew against Wigan on Saturday afternoon, and the elation of victory returned after a long and often turbulent period for the club, it was difficult not to feel slightly conflicted about what had unfolded over the course of the ninety minutes.
The win, and the manner of it, was absolutely superb, as we showed some of our best qualities against one of League One’s most formidable sides. There was no collapse, no silly concession of goals, and no sense of ‘Here we go again’, as Leam Richardson’s side, noted for its ability to snatch late goals and push teams until the dying seconds, simply couldn’t find a route back into the game.
In many ways, it was reminiscent of how we regularly played during the opening months of the season, where things came easily to us and the players’ heads were up, their chests were out, nerves were kept to a minimum and the crowd provided them with the impetus to see the game out.
On the other hand, it did bring into sharp focus exactly how costly recent results have been for us, and as I write, I’m struggling to keep the thought of ‘what might have been’ from my mind.
Every season has a defining period, and there is little doubt that, after our visit to Adams Park, against the backdrop of a Covid outbreak, the trajectory of Sunderland’s 2021/2022 campaign, which was seemingly headed relentlessly upwards, initially levelled off and then ended up in a nosedive that allowed Rotherham and Wigan to pull clear in the race for automatic promotion, and left Sunderland seemingly in no-man’s land.
Confidence ebbed away, the form of individual players dipped enormously, and results like the 5-0 pasting of Sheffield Wednesday became a faded memory. The questions that followed were difficult: were we ever that good? Had we hyped this group of players up too much?
To my mind, this all came from one poorly-defended set piece in the thrilling draw against Gareth Ainsworth’s team.
Ever since Joe Jacobson prodded home a late equaliser for Wycombe, our season had taken a downturn that was initially worrying, then alarming, and until Saturday, had become downright horrible to see.
Defeat against Lincoln, a hammering at the hands of Bolton; a botched managerial search, a transfer window conclusion that left us worryingly light in defence, not to mention defeats at the hands of Doncaster, Cheltenham, and MK Dons, resulted in anger, frustration, and a general feeling of deja-vu that we all thought had been left behind.
Throw in the ongoing anger about the club’s ownership and it wasn’t unreasonable to ask whether Alex Neil truly understood the scale of the challenge he faced when he was unveiled. The Scot is clearly an ebullient kind of coach, one for whom challenges don’t represent something to fear, and that is a priceless attribute for us.
Seeing our top-two chances evaporate during this period has been painful, and one victory certainly won’t change the entire picture overnight.
Nevertheless, there is still a prize to play for, come the end of the season, and although the weight of history is heavily against us when it comes to the playoffs, who is to say that Alex Neil isn’t the man to change that?
The idea of going through three extra nerve-shredding games when the top two teams are on the beach and pondering how best to approach the Championship isn’t appealing, but our target has been adjusted and it remains an achievable one. One thing seems certain, and that is that Neil will understand exactly how to prepare for the end-of-season shootout. He has been there with Norwich, and won’t fear it at all.
It is absolutely imperative that, during the final eleven games, we build up enough momentum to enable us to approach the playoffs as a team in form, and against whom nobody wants to play, rather than a team that has run out of steam and somehow dragged themselves over the line.
Looking back to the end of the 2020/2021 season, during which automatic promotion seemed a genuine possibility until another a late-season collapse resulted in us falling away from Hull and Peterborough, we went into the playoffs looking jaded and there for the taking, something that Lincoln gladly capitalised on over two legs of the semi-final.
It wasn’t a dissimilar story during 2018/2019, either, as we stumbled onto the top six, and edged past Portsmouth over two legs, before looking significantly off the pace in the final against Charlton.
Between now and the final league game, Sunderland need to become a team to fear. We can certainly do that, and it ought to provide the players with enough motivation to ensure that the victory over Wigan wasn’t a fluke. With a maximum of fourteen games left, the target is clear, the players know exactly what needs to be done, and the focus on finishing the season strongly must be utterly ruthless.