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Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium

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Wembley Stadium: No longer the arch enemy of Sunderland AFC

For a long time the twin towers and then the arch symbolised glorious failure in the eyes of many Sunderland fans, but recent results at the national stadium point to a brighter future for the club.

Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

It may take a while to sink in, but Sunderland have now won at Wembley for two seasons in a row. That is no mean feat whoever you are, but when you bear in mind just how bad our record has been in showpiece occasions over the last forty-plus years it is a massive step forward for the Lads.

Of course, the victories have come in competitions we would rather not have to enter again, and a EFL Trophy final or League One play-off might not be looked back upon with the same reverence as the glories of 1937 and 1973, but after years of struggle that have culminated in a double relegation and a bruising spell in the third tier it has been good to see things starting to turn round.

Sunderland v Tranmere Rovers - Papa John’s Trophy - Final 2021 - Wembley Stadium
A sign of things to come?
Photo by John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

The Papa John’s Trophy was a nice distraction for supporters at a time of restrictions and uncertainty, whilst for many people gaining promotion via the play-offs is the most enjoyable way to do it.

That is not necessarily a viewpoint I’d agree with but certainly, winning in the manner we did on Saturday will hopefully help close the door on a dismal period in our history – a bright memory to help forget the some of the dark days that went before.

Winning at the iconic home of English football, and for fans to be present in such great numbers the second time round, goes a long way to expelling the bad memories of all the near misses that went before at the stadium too and, just as importantly, beating Tranmere Rovers and then Wycombe Wanderers could stand us in good stead for the battles that are yet to come.

For fans too young to remember beating Preston North End and Leeds United, Wembley was the place where dreams died.

The side did us proud against Liverpool and Manchester City but ultimately fell short, whereas other trips have either seen us put through the wringer or freeze in the headlights.

Now though, there are no hard luck stories, no tales of woe and no hangovers to take on to the following season: we can start to associate the national stadium with glory and see it as a place to relish instead of fear.

Several managers consider their first successes at a club to be the most important; Brian Clough felt that guiding Nottingham Forest to the 1976-77 Anglo-Scottish Cup was the springboard for them going on to become two times European champions, whilst Jose Mourinho’s later pinpointed winning the League Cup in 2005 as one of the foundations for their first league title in 50 years and the other trophies that followed.

Adding to the honours board can never be a bad thing and maybe, just maybe, our much welcome victories will turn out to be our ‘Anglo-Scottish’ moments that in future years are recognised as the beginnings of something even better.

To achieve that may take some time perhaps, although after going through the 2021-22 campaign I suppose anything is possible – it has been a season of three parts for me that encompassed the sometimes good, sometimes bad and sometimes just plain bizarre experiences life as a Sunderland fan can give you.

Up until the new year I was convinced Sunderland were going up.

Following on from that Papa John’s win, Lee Johnson had injected some confidence into the side and appeared to have banished the dreaded ‘1-1’ draws that encapsulated everything that was wrong with our play. Within the space of just a few weeks though it all went to pot and then even a play-off spot looked out of the question – that’s how spectacular the collapse was, and it wasn’t helped by what looked from the outside to be a crisis of confidence in the processes that have been put in place at the club.

Come act three however, the run-in, and there was a will they/won't they vibe. Results elsewhere often made it look like we weren’t getting anywhere, but there was enough about the performances to suggest that if we did reach the playoffs, we’d be a decent bet. Knowing that the Wembley duck had already been broken meant they didn’t seem as daunting, and the fact we sprinted instead of limping over the line gave things a much more positive feel.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium
This is how we want to remember Wembley
Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

That confidence meant a lot and if we look at it objectively now, that was a near-faultless set of performances in the three games in Sunderland, Sheffield and London.

It may not be seen as a vintage promotion in the same way 1964 or 1999 are, but there have been some exciting last minute winners in recent weeks that culminated in a masterclass in the capital that will live long in the memory.

Much in the same way our awful record at the national stadium is now becoming a decent one, Alex Neil, the players and the people behind the scenes deserve a lot of credit for dragging the season back on course and getting the job done. Here’s hoping that Wembley Way continues to lead us to more triumphs in the coming years.

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