When Alex Neil arrived at Sunderland on a mid-season salvage job, his aims were twofold: to stabilise and solidify a team that had lost its way under Lee Johnson, and to dig out a set of results that would ensure we secured a playoff place and kept our hopes of a Championship return alive.
On both counts he has succeeded, and even if Sunderland’s impressive thirteen-game unbeaten run has often been reliant on pragmatic football that has sometimes been short on entertainment, the results have spoken for themselves, and Neil deserves immense credit for that.
And so a league campaign that started with an unexpected victory over Wigan (who were promoted as deserved champions on Saturday) ended with this gritty win over Morecambe, who went into the final day with their League One status less than secure - but thanks to results elsewhere they can look forward to another season in this division.
As the game wound down on Saturday that classic end-of-season feeling was in the air. Both sets of fans were buoyant, the players visibly relaxed as the minutes ticked down, and there was a distinct sense of ‘job done’ wherever you looked.
From a Sunderland perspective, MK Dons’ comprehensive victory over Plymouth eventually rendered our own result immaterial, but we still had a job to do regardless.
The tense midweek draw against Rotherham added a tinge of urgency to this game, but Neil’s team selection, with Alex Pritchard and Elliot Embleton recalled and Luke O’Nien deployed in a defensive role, didn’t scream of pragmatism. He clearly felt that that game was there to be won, and set the team up accordingly.
To be brutally frank, there was little to illuminate this relatively low-key affair bar Sunderland’s winning goal, which we’ll get to later. The football wasn’t of the highest standard, and our performance rarely rose above the status of ‘functional’, but that was not a bad thing.
After a season filled with twists and turns, of last-minute dramas and often sickening conclusions, this was a much more controlled and focused performance, and rarely did we look like wobbling at the final hurdle.
Sunderland’s solitary goal was arguably the only genuine moment of quality during the entire ninety minutes. A neat through-ball from Corry Evans was latched onto by Nathan Broadhead, who showed impressive composure to slot the ball home and give us an all-important lead.
In typically galling fashion, however, things were soured when he was forced off with an injury barely ten minutes later. With the playoffs looming, it was disheartening to see him play no further part in the game, and if he does not recover in time for Friday, we will have to adapt accordingly.
As well as the victory, were some other positives to take away from the game. In midfield, there was a better balance between Corry Evans and Embleton, and it does feel as though this axis could be the recipe for any playoff success.
The physicality of Evans and the ball-playing abilities of Embleton feel like a good match, and the Northern Ireland international’s upturn in form, during which time he has evolved into a genuine on-field leader, has been extremely impressive. With Jay Matete and Dan Neil also vying for berths in the engine room, Alex Neil’s options are plentiful, which is encouraging.
Returning to the subject of Broadhead, the brilliant Everton loanee, a much-loved figure among the fans, is presenting everyone with a dilemma.
He is a superb goalscorer and all-round attacking threat, but his physical fragility cannot be overlooked, and you can only wonder how the season would’ve panned out had we been able to call on him for the entirety of it.
If there was a chance of keeping him beyond this season, I would personally grab it with both hands, but how does the club weigh up his goal output against a questionable injury record, and will we even have the chance of signing him, with Everton’s future very much uncertain?
Target achieved, then, and this week will undoubtedly be highly-charged and filled with anticipation as we prepare for the playoff semi-finals.
There is definitely something building within our squad, and after some good training ahead of Friday we can hopefully head into the first leg against Sheffield Wednesday fully prepared and ready to deliver.
We have overcome one hurdle but now it gets very serious, and the players will know exactly what is expected of them.