In the words once infamously spoken by a certain Kevin Keegan, ‘I’ve kept really quiet, but I’ll tell you something...’
After the debacle at the end of last season, I didn’t want to say we’re definitely going up this year and jinx us as appeared to happen as soon as I ‘confidently’ declared it last year.
Under Alex Neil I have in the last few weeks been quietly confident. That is despite watching and suffering the kind of heartbreak only the playoffs can deliver. I’ve watched it unfold or should I say, unravel, over the past 25 years. Like so many, I’ve bought my tickets and attended Wembley for three of our last four appearances there since 2014.
Wembley is magic, the home of football, and no matter what your team is there for, you can’t help but get sucked into the whole bubble surrounding a day out draped in your team colours. You are part of something, a dream to be swept along on a magic carpet ride in the hope our team will triumph.
But as we all know so well, no matter if Sunderland are underdogs or favourites, it hasn’t mattered in recent times.
Every visit has followed the same pattern - we go, we conquer the capital, drink it dry, turn Trafalgar and Wembley Way red, sing our Mackem hearts out for ninety minutes and leave the place bloody sombre. We then turn to the person next to us and say, ‘maybe next time’.
Yes, Wembley is magic, but making the trip home after a defeat has to be one of the worst feelings a fan can experience - certainly on the back of a Playoff final defeat.
However, skip forward from Charlton, Mark II, 2019, the buzz around Wembley Way was one of confidence. After all, Sunderland’s last visit to Wembley, minus fans, saw us win on the hallowed turf.
‘Nah, we won’t lose today,’ I heard while queueing outside the turnstiles. Inside, I fully agreed with him. During my last visits to the big arch, I’ve sat and agonized over what Sunderland could have done differently and who would have made a difference to the outcome. Personally, I concluded only two former Sunderland managers in the last fifteen years would have secured us wins. One was Roy Keane, and the other I thought of was Sam Allardyce - though that’s probably a story for another day.
Back in January, Sunderland had just lost 6-0 at Bolton and Keane was being interviewed for the Sunderland job after Lee Johnson’s acrimonious departure. The club was on its knees, staring at another season in League One following the collapse of our form and everyone needed a boost.
I mirror a post from yesterday on social media. No one could have foreseen a playoff triumph at that point. All credit to Alex Neil, my glimmer of hope was that he managed something similar at Norwich. But this is Sunderland we’re talking about... we don’t do things the easy way.
Chris Coleman spoke passionately about the club this week. To some, he’s one that given time could have altered our course. But unlike some, he isn’t bitter towards the club or our fans. I agree with his sentiment that it was the right club only at the wrong time. The point I must make, is there can be no playing down what a hell of a job Alex Neil has done in a few short months.
I’m not sure if I’m the first to say this, but it is quite simply Stokoe-esque!
Cometh the man, cometh the hour... Alex Neil is not just the manager we’ve needed for so long but he’s the essence of the manager we’ve wanted.
His team going the distance, scoring late goals is reminiscent of the Roy Keane era and his pragmatic approach doing what is needed to grind out points reminds me of Allardyce. Back Neil to the hilt and we could be in for some exciting times.
Alex Neil hasn’t created anything new with our club yet - the magic has always been there, but perhaps he’s the man to finally rediscover it.