Sunderland AFC is a football club that has been haunted by the past for too long.
This Saturday’s playoff final against Wycombe Wanderers is an occasion that, not long ago, felt like an opportunity that would not come, and failure cannot be contemplated.
2021/22 really does have the feel of a seminal season, and so much has happened since August: we returned to our stadium after COVID to witness a new strategy, a new style of football and a new hope. We enjoyed a memorable cup run, underwent a change of manager, and experienced a chaotic couple of months, before embarking on an impressive end-of-season run that saw us secure a top-six finish.
Along the way, there have been some real highs and crushing lows, from the early belief that the promise of the younger players would prevail, to a post-Christmas slump when we realised that youth on its own would not be enough, and then from nowhere, the grit, strength of character and sheer bloody-mindedness that ultimately led us to the playoff final.
In addition, there is the ongoing controversy over the club’s ownership, as well as the appointment of Alex Neil, and the Jermain Defoe saga. Whatever the outcome, there will be a lot to remember and to talk about in years to come.
Suffice it to say, there is so much resting on Saturday’s game.
The club feels like it has one foot planted on the top of a mountain. Beat Wycombe, and we will finally scale the peak. Lose, however, and we will find ourselves back at base camp, with a long and painful journey in prospect for next season.
The support throughout the playoffs, which was reflected in the atmosphere inside the Stadium of Light for the semi-final first leg, not to mention the demand for Wembley tickets, has been astounding. It demonstrates exactly what the club could be, should the team continue to progress.
That level of goodwill and support cannot be taken for granted and must be used positively this Saturday. We all know exactly what Sunderland AFC can become when the momentum is with us, and we have seen how the club can move forward when everything comes together- the memorable seasons under Denis Smith, Peter Reid and Roy Keane have shown us that.
In those days, sheer excitement, togetherness and belief propelled the team forward- often beyond the theoretical limits of its ability. If we can beat Wycombe and secure a passage back to the Championship, we could be on the verge of something special, as we were during the late 1990s.
However, we all know that when it comes to a playoff final, logic, sense and form often count for little.
It goes without saying that Wycombe are a dangerous opponent in such a situation, and the prospect of failure feels unthinkable.
Promotion may well settle the ownership issue once and for all, but if we were to lose on Saturday, it is likely to linger. In addition, the reward of Championship football will surely enable us to secure the futures of our brightest young players, but a loss may mean we will lose some or all of them.
In the transfer market, promotion will allow us to compete for a higher calibre of player, and should also provide the opportunity to improve the infrastructure of the club, which has been left to rot for so long. That must be our hope, anyway.
This Saturday, at 3:00pm at Wembley Stadium, in front of what will likely be close to 50,000 red and white-clad supporters, Neil and his players have the chance to change this club’s fortunes and move us into a new era.
It may be a cliché, but it is a pivotal game- our biggest in years. I believe that we will see the future of our club reveal itself on Saturday, and we can only hope that this vision will be a positive one.