In the wake of Sunderland’s gritty victory over Oxford on Saturday (were you watching, Jamie Mackie?) my Roker Report colleague Gav drew a comparison between our current position and the way we slowly gathered momentum during the second half of Roy Keane’s first season, which culminated in us stealing the Championship title from under the noses of Birmingham on the final day of the season.
Back in those halcyon days, it was away trips to the likes of Barnsley and Southampton that proved crucial (the latter of which was on Easter Monday, the same time as next weekend’s crunch trip to Plymouth) and as the games went by, belief increased and every game brought a growing sense of ‘yes, we can do it. We can achieve our goal’.
In that sense, if we fast forward to 2022, perhaps Bailey Wright can be Alex Neil’s Jonny Evans-type figure, and Elliot Embleton could be our new David Connolly, so crucial was his goal to seal the points on Saturday, having been summoned from the bench and made his mark with mere minutes left in the game.
This is the stage of the season where players can step up and make themselves the hero of the hour, and so far that’s exactly what has happened.
Under Alex Neil’s stewardship you can see several players undergoing genuine upturns in form, and as the players celebrated victory on Saturday, team spirit is clearly growing with every game that passes. It took a while, but it is obvious that they are all fully attuned to the new style of play, and are responding well to his managerial approach.
Granted, automatic promotion is, to the frustration of us all, no longer a viable target, and the debates about where we would’ve been had Neil arrived earlier will continue to rumble on but just as in the spring of 2007, when we built towards the climax by churning our result after result, we are certainly on a similar path now.
Weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of us building genuine momentum during the final weeks of the season, and ensuring that we would be the form team heading into the end-of-season shootout.
There is still work to be done in that regard, but crucially, our fate remains in our own hands, and the next two games will define whether we can right the wrongs of 2019 and 2021, end the season on a high, and tackle the playoffs with enthusiasm, rather than resignation.
Sunderland’s frailty and reputation for falling short in the playoffs is well-known, but I do feel, and have for a while, that Alex Neil could be the manager to finally end the curse.
At the moment, I don’t think we could call ourselves a ‘team to fear’, but we aren’t a million miles away, and there is no doubt in my mind that, through recent results, and the way in which they have been achieved, we have put our fellow playoff hopefuls on notice.
It is one of the oldest and most well-worn football truisms in the book, but grinding out victories from adverse situations is often the hallmark of successful teams, and when our attacking game finally clicks, I have no doubt that one or two comprehensive victories will follow.
Without a doubt, the biggest change that Neil has brought about has been one of mindset, and that is another area in which he shares common ground with Keane, albeit not projected through the incredible aura of the former Republic of Ireland international.
During his short time at the helm, he has turned us from nice guys who were burdened by naivety into winners, with a more streetwise mentality and a no-nonsense attitude towards the basics of the game. He understands and seems to relish the fact that League One can be a rough and tumble place to play, and has chosen his teams to suit whatever challenge the opposition poses.
This is not intended as a dig at his predecessor, because I do think Lee Johnson did a lot of good during his time at the club. We always had the capacity to play enterprising, positive football, and although that hasn’t been seen as much under Neil, there is a granite-like toughness that characterises our play now, epitomised through players such as Wright, who has been a rock-like presence recently.
Fundamentally, he has stripped things down, got us back to basics, and reshaped the squad into a cohesive unit, in which every player knows their role.
On Saturday, as Neil admitted after the game, he tried to be too clever and it almost backfired on him. There was no deflection or evasion, just some good, honest self-reflection and an admittance of culpability, which doubtless endeared him to the fans even more.
Nothing is set in stone yet, and we still need to navigate our way through the final games without too many edgy moments, but there are parallels between our last successful promotion campaign and this one, and I do feel very confident that the class of 2021/2022 can repeat what their predecessors of 2006/2007 were able to accomplish.