Now that the dust begins to settle on what was a breathless, incredible end to the season the time has come to look back on the previous nine months.
Many moments have stood out as reasons for why we did eventually end up extricating ourselves from the purgatory of this hellhole league - or should that be hell of this hellhole league? There are other less heralded moments which are worthy of a mention. The underrated moments which - perversely or not - helped us on our road to promotion. So in no particular order...
The defeats to Doncaster and Cheltenham
Let’s start with where it got pretty bad. And bear with me on this one.
The defeats at the beginning of February were so bad you’d think that the lads were crisis actors and this was a Sunderland City Council away day.
Looking at it in isolation, many of us screamed “j’accuse!” at Kristjaan Speakman and co for apparent inertia over a managerial appointment. This, clearly, still stands. However now there is a different context to it.
Imagine if Sunderland had picked up six points? Or even simply four? Yes it is an imprecise science and yes the rest of the season would have panned out differently (i.e. Dodds and Proctor could have got it full time!) but in many ways the real risk of running the top two close could have meant the disappointment of being nearly men. Not going into the playoffs with momentum, and not going into them with a point to prove.
The indirect free kick against Crewe
There are many things we will all not miss about the utterly tinpot league that was League One. So many things which have been mentioned across various Twitter threads. Yes there were some pretty horrendous self-inflicted wounds, but there was also the opposition. They did not help.
Some of them were utterly exhausting, weren’t they? Many embraced the tinniness; small-minded anti-football jobbers who saw us as their big day out. If they were guests at a party, they would have turned up with a pack of Aldi breadsticks and some Galahad lager.
It was the time-wasting that really got me. It reached a crescendo, or nadir depending on how you view it, against Crewe. We appeared to be labouring to a point against the whipping boys of the division, who were taking so much time over their throw-ins you’d think they were bomb diffusers.
On 78 minutes referee Neil Hair gave perhaps the best decision seen at the Stadium of Light in our four seasons in League One, running out of patience with Crewe goalkeeper “dithering” Dave Richards who had decided to take a break from delivering the ball upfield to take afternoon tea in his 18-yard box.
What followed was an indirect free kick inside the Crewe area, and although it didn’t lead to a goal the noise levels rose, the players had an extra spring in their step and five minutes later Dan Neil thought “f*ck this” and lashed home from just outside the area.
If Sunderland had dropped two points that day it would have seen them outside the playoffs having played two games more than some of their rivals.
Thank God for competent officiating eh.
The early exits from the cups
Having floated this one by a couple of people, they’ve said “no, you’re talking rubbish” as to why this is a reason for Sunderland’s success. But I stand by it.
Fewer games to play and therefore less fixture congestion is probably what a club with a track record of the wheels coming off a fatigued squad later in the season needs. It all points to being a good thing that Sunderland decided to chuck the FA Cup and the slice of pizza trophy early doors.
As April and May wore on, Sunderland showed no signs of tiredness; it was only during Lee Johnson’s tenure and his decision to red-line Doyle, Cirkin and Stewart did the weariness show.
Of course, if Charlie Austin’s hilariously onside goal against us had ended up counting, then maybe Broadhead wouldn’t have injured his hammy (for another two or three games at least). Having said that...
The first half performance v Arsenal
At the time our pitch at the Stadium of Light was being entered in Gardeners’ World Allotment of the Year competition, so the ability to play flowing football there was a pipe dream at the very best.
However, Arsenal’s Emirates stadium offered the chance to showcase our attacking credentials, and for the first 45 minutes of the Carabao Cup quarter final Sunderland looked like a side that was playing at a level far above that of a third tier side.
Sadly the match was Lee Johnson’s tenure in a microcosm; lovely going forward but as organised as a stag do in Benidorm at the back. What it did do though was give the side the confidence to knock it about with gay abandon, because if you can do it against one of the best sides in the country, you sure as hell can do it in League One.
Yes bumps in the road appeared (Bolton away, obviously) but ultimately this was a side that had the ability to take teams apart. Alex Neil managed to arrest that decline without sacrificing Sunderland’s attacking verve.
The Ross Stewart goal v Burton
Perhaps one of the biggest positives about no longer being in League One is that fans will be spared the annual failure to beat Burton Albion at the Stadium of Light.
It’s always been the case that the club has gone into their home fixture against the Brewers in what can politely be described as a bit of a funny mood. Remember when it got toxic as Parky announced to all and sundry that he was woefully out of his depth as manager? Remember when they relegated us? Remember when we ditched Parky and Andrew Taylor guided us to a 1-1 draw? I actually don’t remember that one but apparently it happened.
It’s a quirk that every home League One game against them was on a Tuesday night. There probably is something in the fact that a cold, atmosphere-less midweek at the SOL plays into the opposition hands if they set up right tactically.
What’s sure is that none of the matches will be fondly remembered.
It was certainly the case this February, as the Brewers came to hit Sunderland on the break and then defend (relatively comfortably as it turned out) for the remainder of the second half.
However, Ross Stewart’s goal deep into stoppage time was significant. Without it, it would have condemned Alex Neil to a second straight defeat following on from MK Dons, and it would not have provided a springboard for the unbeaten run that Sunderland are still on.