There’s a conversation with a family friend and Charlton fan that still haunts me. It actually doesn’t include the words “playoff” or “Mendonca” or even “Wembley”. In the pre-season before Sunderland’s first season in League One, my Charlton pal Gary said “the problem with Sunderland is that you think you’re going to go straight back up but trust me, you’ve signed all the wrong players.”
I dismissed what he was saying at the time.
I mean, we’d signed well and kept some decent footballers from the Championship - even Premier League days - what could go wrong, right?
As I sat at Wembley following Charlton’s 93rd-minute winner in the Playoff final at the end of that first season, I remembered his words acutely. This wasn’t as straightforward as we might have thought it was going to be. We’d finished 5th – our lowest ever league position and Jack Ross seemed bang out of ideas on how to handle this league.
You see at the time Gary told me Sunderland were making mistakes, Charlton had been in League One for three years already. He was candid with me that in League One, teams don’t want to play football, they want to be physical. In League One referees aren’t fit, let alone fit to referee. In League One it’s a battle of endurance, not skill. Winning headers, getting in blocks and needing to either keep clean sheets or score over three goals a game were your only way of progressing up the league table, neither of which are particularly sustainable.
Sunderland, perhaps naively, continued to believe - even up until January of this year when Lee Johnson was sacked, that we were going to play our way out of League One. It was never going to happen. The league isn’t designed for football, but for scrapping.
People often talk about the gulf in class between the Premier League and the Championship. It’s true that there is a jump but I’d suggest that the top six in the Championship would hold their own against the bottom six in the Premier League most weeks. The difference between Championship and League One however, is astronomical - evidenced by just how many promoted teams end up back in League One after just a season in the Championship.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I make absolutely no secret of the fact I hate being in League One. I don’t find it a novelty in the slightest and I still wince when I have to scroll down three times on my phone to see the scores from the division Sunderland are actually in. The time-wasting, the refereeing, the lack of quality, the complete lack of desire to play football… it all adds to something that is as far more akin to a fart in a lift than the romantic vision of football we were promised as kids would come.
We’ve long needed a manager who understood that.
Pragmatism over pontificating about the latest managerial manual they’ve swallowed on their latest pro-license refresher course (yes I am talking to you Lee Johnson). What Alex Neil has managed to do since February is understand what it takes to get out this league.
And it’s started by dropping “ball playing” centre backs in Doyle and replacing Flanagan with brick walls in Bailey Wright and Batth. Stewart will rightly get the plaudits for what he has done at the other end of the pitch, but Bailey Wright might have single-handedly got us into the playoffs in recent weeks.
No nonsense, hard as nails, tough.
That’s what we have looked and played like, with the quality and patience at key moments in the game to punish teams.
I admit to not being a massive fan of Neil. I still think he has the air of a David Moyes and “I’m doing you all a favour by being here” vibe, when in fact he is one lucky, lucky boy to have this job. And I question if a Premier League return with Neil at the wheel is possible. But I’ve never wanted to be more wrong about any individual than I am about Alexander Francis Neil. I’m praying he ends this League One nightmare in 48 hours’ time.
And make no mistake - it’s been a nightmare. Few clubs could have endured this torture with the good humour and grace that Sunderland fans have. ‘There but for the grace of God’ is the mantra of many a football club looking at what we have had to go through since we dropped out of the Premier League in 2017.
I often say top friends in Essex who question why I’m a Sunderland fan that I was mis-sold PPI as a kid. When I started going to the Stadium of Light with my Mam and Dad in the late nineties, Quinn and Philips were firing Sunderland to 7th place Premier League finishes. The next twenty years have been more of an endurance test, none more so than the last four.
Yet like Sunderland folk for generations, our brilliant fanbase hasn’t moaned and groaned, nor have we lost the mentality of a proud and monstrous support. Instead, we’ve got on with it, knowing that promotion to the Championship isn’t even close to the end game for our club.
Like everyone reading this post, I love Sunderland. It’s my escape from the pressures of the day job each week. And yes, whilst it’s the hope that invariably kills us, we are called at five minutes to three on a Saturday afternoon to keep the faith. This Saturday is no different.
Let’s hope the wise men are looking down on us under the arch.
Ha’way the lads.