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Sunderland’s improvement since January has been remarkable, but we cannot stop now

After a season that was in danger of fizzling out, Sunderland have been reborn in recent months. Tom Albrighton looks at the changes that have had such a big impact.

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Since 2017, few clubs have gone to such extreme lengths to lean into their ‘banter era’ as much as Sunderland.

It has often been so stark, that our club has likely become a byword for other teams in peril, with institutions like Everton often being compared to how we once were, amid warnings not to make the same mistakes that we did.

For a long time, the death knell has hung over Sunderland like the darkest of clouds.

Financially challenged for the best part of four years, with plant pot bills running into the thousands, kits with ironed-on badges and sponsors that peeled off after a single wash, and a pitch that was quite literally falling apart at the edges, it really illustrates just how bogged down in the quagmire of League One we have been.

For years, we have been football’s Tollund Man- entombed in our own failings, and prevented from beginning the long climb back up the pyramid with any real drive or gusto.

As this season unfolded, and the usual managerial change took place, it seemed certain that Sunderland had once again pressed the self-destruct button on a campaign that was supposed to represent a break with the past.

This was meant to be the season. The season of revolution, of youth, vim and vigour, of scintillating football, and of style and substance. Despite the early promise, however, we seemed to be fading away with an almost characteristic whimper by mid-January.

By the time Alex Neil stepped through the door, Sunderland’s apparent collapse was well underway.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by Dave Howarth - CameraSport via Getty Images

He inherited a squad bereft of confidence and woefully short on fitness, and the pre-Christmas optimism had been replaced by an all-too-familiar pessimism and belief that Sunderland would fall short yet again.

Neil took over with the side in something of a death spiral. We were being hindered by a leaky defence, our young players - who already lacked experience - had been run ragged, and our attacking output had become increasingly laboured. Indeed, there hasn’t been an area in which Neil hasn’t faced some kind of issue, least of all issues that have required an immediate fix.

Away from the dugout, one man has embodied Sunderland's post-January resurrection more than any other player, and that is Corry Evans.

It wasn’t long ago that Evans was booed from the pitch at the Stadium of Light at the end of consecutive home games.

Although not out of favour with his gaffer, Evans certainly was with the fans, and his performances were tired, leggy, and lacking in any kind of zest or flair. His early-season promise had given way to a string of passive performances, and he appeared to lack the credentials deemed necessary to be Sunderland captain.

However, Evans then did something that many wouldn’t have done. Instead of hiding or shirking, he stood up to the challenge, and he doubled down.

Perhaps it was a result of Neil’s guidance, or maybe it was borne out of the kind of determination and stoicism that only Northern Irish people can possess.

As he began to work harder and harder, and he started to throw himself into challenge after challenge, Evans began to emerge as the captain that he really is.

With every game he has played recently, the values that Sunderland fans hold dear- a fighting spirit, a calming influence, a steely determination and a complete lack of fear - have started to emerge.

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

At this stage, it seems unfathomable that you would pick a Sunderland team without Evans’ name on the sheet, such has been the scale of his rebirth.

Much like Evans, and in spite of many people writing us off, Sunderland have fought back against every wrong, self-inflicted or otherwise. Under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, the platform is now set for the club to emerge from the embers and begin the journey towards the top tier once again.

The previously crumbling pitch has been given a new lease of life and looks every inch the kind of top-tier playing surface that so many of us grew up watching the Lads play on. The plant pots have all but vanished, as have many of the reminders of regimes gone by, and the distance between the club and the fans is narrowing, too.

Flag and tifo displays have been created, and have been woven together with respectful and nostalgic nods towards better times, whilst offering a tantalising glimpse of how things could be again. After what feels like an age, the fans are being listened to once more, and are fully engaged with what is happening at the club.

And so, as the green shoots emerge and hope reigns supreme, Alex Neil and his squad stand on the brink of something special, and that is to become the group that helped to breathe new life into this crumbling empire.

To do that, there is only one thing left to do...

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