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Morecambe v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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Editorial: Opportunity knocks – reflections, inquests and recriminations can wait

We’ve got to embrace the opportunity of the play-offs this season, rather than resent it as a sign of failure. And the club need to play their part, too.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It’s been patently obvious we’re were going to finish in the play-offs, at best, for months now.

Ever since our January dip in form, the odds have been firmly against us getting automatic promotion, and ultimately we were left needing a last-game win to secure that play-off spot.

Let’s get one thing absolutely clear. We should never view a fifth-place finish in League One as being acceptable. We should never accept being a League One club. We need to get out of this league as soon as possible.

But the reality is, we are a League One team.

The reality is, over 46 games, we’ve never really looked like gaining automatic promotion in any one of our seasons down here.

And the reality is the play-offs are a massive, massive opportunity for us to get back to where we all think we at least belong.

All of our energy, effort and focus has surely got to be on supporting the club from far and wide over the next week – hopefully, the next three weeks – in order for us to have a chance of going up.

We’ve got to firmly look forward now and embrace the challenge that lies ahead – and for once, we’re entering the play-offs after a sequence of excellent results.

Back in Jack Ross’s season, we stumbled into the play-offs like a drunken sailor and fans and players alike seemed to view our participation as a failure. We were expected to bounce straight back up as champions, and we’d failed. We won only one of our last seven games of the season, losing out on automatics and we went into the play-offs tired, and devoid of confidence.

Even the club didn’t seem arsed, and barely promoted the game at all.

Sunderland v Portsmouth - Sky Bet League One Play-Off: First Leg
The club did nothing to generate an atmosphere around the play offs in 2019
Photo bt Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

No wonder we ultimately fell short.

Last season, we again stumbled in after seemingly being in pole position to claim an automatic place – one win in our last nine meant we once again saw the play-offs as a booby prize of our own selection.

This season, we’ve come into the end of the season with eight wins, six draws and one defeat – 30 points – from 15 games.

Over the course of the season, that’s automatic promotion-winning form.

Since Alex Neil’s appointment, we’ve looked a far more solid and sturdy team – yes, maybe some attacking instincts have been curtailed, but we look an awful lot more balanced than we did previously, and that should give us all hope for a successful play-off campaign.

Of course, we’d all rather we’d won the league at a canter, but it doesn’t matter how we go up, as long as we do.

We’ve got to embrace the challenge, and treat it as something to be relished, because that’s certainly what the likes of Wycombe, MK Dons and Sheffield Wednesday will be doing.

Sheffield Wednesday v Crewe Alexandra - Sky Bet League One - Hillsborough
Wednesday will be relishing the play-offs. We have to, too
Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images

And ultimately, it’s the only way to get what we all want – and that’s an escape route out of this division.

There’ll be time – plenty of time – for reviews and retrospective looks at what’s gone wrong (and right) this season.

There’ll be weeks and weeks without any football to debate and discuss the results that let us down, the merit of decisions and processes, the club accounts, and the performance of our players, our head coaches, our sporting director and owners.

Is now the time for any of that? Probably not. Negativity isn’t remotely conducive to success, and – again – all of us want the same thing; for Sunderland to get back to the championship, for starters.

And the best chance we have of that is heading into the play-offs united and positive. Embracing the challenge, rather than resenting it.

I’ve been really impressed with Neil so far. After an indifferent start he’s done a pretty remarkable job with the team, and hopefully, that stands us in good stead.

Sunderland v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One
Alex Neil has achieved an excellent set of results since he came in, even if performances haven’t always been great
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

It’s far from certain whether we’ll go up or not – the other three teams in the play-offs are very strong, and it’ll take a huge effort and us being on top of our game to get past them.

But we’ve got a chance of going up.

And, ultimately, that’s the outcome we all want – regardless of how we get there.

Friday night under the lights at the Stadium could – should – be a fantastic occasion.

Hopefully, the club have got its communications and marketing plans ready to roll out to get the ground as full as it can be, and generate a huge buzz around the city and the region for this game.

Because, in our history, it could be absolutely pivotal.

Ha’way the lads!

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