Gooch comes alive
It would be unfair of me to begin anywhere else except with our little American Prince Lynden Gooch.
He was the subject of much discussion beforehand, mainly because he needed a good performance as, to put it kindly, a lot of people were questioning his continuing presence in the first team.
But boy did he deliver, and then some. Ball after ball into the Cambridge box was an absolute peach – particularly the cross for Broadhead’s goal, which is arguably the cross of the season, should there ever be an award for such things.
There is a scene in The Simpsons where Homer believes a man dressed as a burglar is there to steal all of the Krusty Burgers. As he is attacking him a child shouts “stop, he’s already dead.” This is very much how it felt every time Lynden Gooch ripped the backside out of Brophy.
The plan now for Goochy? Do it all over again on Tuesday.
Embleton the player we all wanted to see two years ago
The sort of standout moments Elliot Embleton has provided over the last month or so has really underlined the potential that everyone knew he had, but we hadn’t seen it regularly enough.
Nothing epitomised this more than his free-kick on Saturday. Audacious, confident and executed with the sort of accuracy not many players in this division can achieve.
He’s been a visible presence at the crucial points in games of late, but it’s a source of some frustration that this player has been here for quite some time now. It’s just taken Alex Neil to get him firing consistently.
His experience of winning at Wembley last season could be crucial, and just like the team as a whole, he is coming into form just when Sunderland need it.
Sunderland have hit their stride at the perfect time
If you had offered seven wins from the next 10 before the Wigan game, I’m sure most fans would have snapped your hand off for it. In many ways, it’s a wonder the Black Cats are only in the playoffs by one solitary point.
This is a side that has really bought into how Alex Neil wants them to play. It’s a credit to him that he has identified how to get the best out of a squad in such a short period of time; it’s the equivalent of coming on with 10 minutes to play and being expected to change the game.
Think back to where Sunderland were after Cheltenham – the situation wasn’t just bleak, it was a sea fret, mixed with mist alongside a radiation leak. In short, things looked bad. However, the combination of Corry Evans’ return to form, and the transformation of a defence into something that resembles, well, a defence, has allowed many of the attacking players in the squad – Pritchard, Embleton, Broadhead, Stewart and Roberts – to express themselves far more consistently than they had previously. Therefore, we can with confidence say, gone are the days where Sunderland just wouldn’t be in matches from the off – Portsmouth, Bolton and Rotherham in particular.
So they are now set up perfectly for the playoffs; it’s not about league position but about form – because how often is it that the team in form ends up triumphing in the playoffs?
Neil finds what Johnson could not
Although to many his sacking was harsh, it’s probably when we’re being totally honest that this squad was not getting promoted under Lee Johnson. They were far too erratic and went into too many games with a confused game plan that neither allowed them to attack or keep it tight at the back. The result being that when it went wrong, they got walloped.
One of the first key missions Neil had as Sunderland manager was to identify the reason why this was. And the results are there for all to see. A sustained goalscoring threat of almost two a game, and only nine conceded in 13 means that the no-nonsense Scot has struck a balance that Johnson failed to grasp.
By his own admission, he took risks against Cambridge, accepting that going man to man against their wing-backs could leave them exposed if they got turned over. However, they stuck to their principles and remained patient. The goals followed - and it should have been a lot more.
What this of course means for the playoffs is a side that is confident, on form and crucially fears no one. But...
It’s not job done
If anyone is thinking they can just start booking the Wembley Premier Inn on the evening of May 20th should think again.
It’s a quirk of this ultra-tight table that two defeats might still mean a playoff place, but three points might not be enough.
And goodness me, we have an opponent on Tuesday who will want to secure all three points, because doing so would all but guarantee an automatic spot. It goes without saying that they should not be taken lightly.
So, danger lies ahead and Sunderland will have to be the ultimate professionals and get the job done on Tuesday. Because who knows, win big and the automatics are still on...
That’s why you shouldn’t book your hotel in London just yet.