Do you remember where you were when Sunderland’s League One journey began? Can you recall how you felt as we prepared for a season of third-tier football for the first time in the lifetime of a generation of fans?
I still do. During the summer of 2018, as we began to face up to the realities of football at such a level, the heartache of Championship relegation began to fade as the promise of a new era dawned. Of course, it was not where any of us wanted to be, but surely this would only be the briefest of flirtations with the footballing backwaters?
Any thoughts of an immediate return were dispelled at the end of that season, and we have been fighting to regain our place among the elite ever since.
Under four permanent managers, through turbulent spells, promising victories and gut-wrenching defeats, Sunderland AFC has limped along, its pride battered and scarred, but sustained by a deep-seated belief that it would get better someday.
When you consider what has happened since 2018, Sunderland’s return to the Championship, masterminded by the brilliant Alex Neil and a group of players who simply would not be denied, feels like a crucial moment. This club has not tasted the joy of promotion since 2007, and doing it the hard way makes the thrill even more pronounced.
As I write, my notifications on social media are filled with a smattering of observers who feel that this is not something to celebrate. My reply? If they could have walked on the same path as us, perhaps they would have a different view.
Since 1998, I, and possibly countless others, have wondered how it would feel to win at the national stadium, with 45,000 fans roaring the team on. Now, we have our answer, and this is a feeling that I often feared I would never experience.
Trying to quantify the madness of the past four years is nigh on impossible, but suffice it to say, it has been both memorable and often surreal.
The names that have passed our way since 2018 are many, from the higher-profile and immensely successful signings of Alex Pritchard, Bailey Wright and Ross Stewart, to the frankly bizarre, such as Laurens de Bock, Morgan Feeney, and Declan John.
We have often spent in scattergun fashion, tried to tap into the free-agent market, experimented with youth and also attempted to promote from within. We brought former heroes back in the hope of recapturing some old magic, in moves that did not succeed.
Managers? Four of them have had a crack, but three of them ultimately failed.
The supposed up-and-comer in Jack Ross. The ‘steady hand’ in Phil Parkinson. The left-field choice in Lee Johnson, and now the granite-tough Neil.
We bought nothing more than a song when Will Grigg arrived. We tried a multitude of central defensive and midfield combinations, and we had a thirty-goal striker who somehow became a hate figure.
We’ve been mocked, scorned, and accused of being entitled, deluded, and arrogant. Artificial rivalries have been forged, pundits have gleefully slapped us down, and rival fans have cast us as the league’s villains and attempted to denigrate us at every turn.
Ownership issues have hampered us, and unrest has rarely been far from the agenda. A Netflix series showcased our travails to the entire world, and respectability trickled away like the water under the Wearmouth bridge.
Now, after finally ending the agonising Wembley curse, all of that is immaterial.
Despite everything that was put in front of us, we kept going. The fans showed faith even during the darkest of times, and now we can finally spend a summer looking forward to the prospect of the big boys rolling into Wearside for league fixtures next season.
The challenge of consolidation in the Championship will be great. Everyone will be aware of that, and the hard work must begin straight away, at the start of what will hopefully be an exciting and transformative summer for the club.
We can look forward to the big games, more TV exposure, and all of the other benefits that second-tier football will bring. Players of a higher calibre will hopefully be signed, attendances at the Stadium of Light will be much higher, and new life will be breathed into the club.
It is imperative that Neil is backed financially, that the squad is bolstered, and foundations are put into place that will allow the club to secure its immediate future in a league that is as unforgiving as it is exciting. There must be a laser-like focus on ensuring that this club never again finds itself in such a position, and that previous mistakes are not repeated.
On Neil, it is hard to overstate the impact that he has had since his arrival.
The Scot has overhauled the mindset of every player, turning them from a team of skilful-but-fragile prospects into a group of hardened warriors.
He speaks in a way that resonates, he brooks no nonsense, and he is the perfect fit for our club. The Championship will hold no fear for him, and you can be certain that he will relish the challenge of cementing us in that league next season.
Promotion to the second tier opens up a pandora’s box of possibilities.
If Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, who was in the Wembley crowd on Saturday, can finally grasp the nettle and strike a deal to assume full control of the club, he could unlock something special. If the infrastructure can be improved and money invested wisely, the potential is limitless.
Sunderland’s promotion is a seismic moment in our recent history. Now, the hard work must begin to ensure the future is a successful one, and that the loyalty of the supporters is rewarded.
This is not the end. It must be but one step on the journey that will hopefully lead us back to the Premier League. It will be arduous and we will be tested with regularity, but once again, there is genuine hope of better days to come.