For everyone connected with Sunderland, the 2021/22 season started with a mixture of bitter disappointment and hope for the future.
Our tame surrender to Lincoln in last season’s playoff semi-final was still a concern, taking into account the abject run of form that preceded it, and once again, we were faced with the prospect of another year in the third tier of English football.
As every fan hoped for a barnstorming league campaign, we witnessed Wigan splash a huge amount of cash during the summer, whilst Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham and Wycombe were also in the mix after the tightest of relegation scraps, all with squads of Championship-standard players.
Those who feared that our poor form would continue were left pleasantly surprised on the opening day, as victory over Wigan got us off to a great start. Indeed, our early-season form was encouraging, before we hit the brakes after an away loss to Burton.
We subsequently bounced back and looked solid for a while, before arriving at a swimming pool of a pitch at Fratton Park in early October. That day, we were all at sea, lost the game comprehensively, and were confronted with the reality that we were not going to earn any cheap wins.
Late October and early November saw our form take a major downturn, with heavy defeats at Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday, as well as a home reverse to Charlton- who had sacked their manager a few days before the game.
A tame FA Cup exit at the hands of Mansfield and a frustrating draw against ten-man Shrewsbury soon had the alarm bells ringing louder than ever, although wins against Morecambe and Plymouth looked to have steadied the ship, prior to a decent performance in the League Cup against Arsenal at the Emirates.
As December unfolded, victories against Doncaster and a 5-0 home rout of Sheffield Wednesday seemed to have got the promotion bid back on track, but Lee Johnson’s critics were not going away.
As 2022 dawned, the board made a call that was akin to that of the decision to fire Peter Reid back in 2002, as Johnson and the club parted ways.
Granted, the 6-0 drubbing by Bolton was the catalyst for his sacking, but the board must surely have been weighing up the situation as we approached the January transfer window.
Like Reid, Johnson was allowed to bolster his squad, even if the arrival of Jermaine Defoe was against his better judgement. If the board had their doubts, why allow Johnson to oversee the entire transfer window, thereby handcuffing his potential replacement to a squad that wasn’t really his?
In the wake of Johnson’s departure, the board dithered in their efforts to recruit a new manager, amid growing calls for the return of Roy Keane.
Whether Keane simply wasn’t eager to return, or whether the board were not happy, the process dragged on through defeats against Doncaster and Cheltenham, two games that should have been bankers for any side with aspirations of promotion.
Eventually, a decision was reached, and Alex Neil arrived.
I was delighted at the news of his appointment, as I’ve always believed he is both a good coach and an effective man manager.
Granted, an away draw against AFC Wimbledon and a defeat at home to MK Dons hardly represented a ‘new manager bounce’, but Neil was busy honing his squad, and an away win over Wigan was a turning point.
Admittedly, there were a handful of frustrating draws during the final weeks of the season, but the Neil-led Sunderland juggernaut eventually steamed into the playoffs, before overcoming Sheffield Wednesday with a mixture of skill and steely determination.
Now, it all comes down to one more game – beneath the Wembley arch - against a Wycombe side who showed against MK Dons that they are not afraid to ‘mix it’ in order to win.
After a long, hard season, the question is: are we in a better position than we were on the opening day? I firmly believe we are.
Ross Stewart has evolved into the striker we hoped he would become, and collectively, we are much more organised and streetwise. Going forward, our attack is potent, with the likes of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts clearly loving life on Wearside.
In Neil, we have a capable, unflappable manager who is also highly knowledgeable, unwavering in his support for his players, and who always takes one game at a time.
Now that the hope of success is even more real, the tension and expectation is at fever pitch. Those of us who are lucky enough to be inside the stadium on Saturday will need to be the twelfth man. The supporters will not freeze, and nor, hopefully, will the players.
Bring the wall of sound that we have delivered so many times in the past, and let’s roar the team to victory.
Alex Neil will certainly tell his team to ensure that every ounce of effort is left on the pitch when the final whistle is blown, and we need to leave every ounce of our support in the stands, too.
After four years, we have the chance to build a team that we deserve, and it could begin with victory on Saturday.