Our time in League One was anything but a laughing matter, but maybe now that we’ve finally achieved promotion, we can see a little humour in it for once.
If we allow the pain and heartache to evolve into elation in the wake of promotion, perhaps we can now see the comedy of errors that was our time in the third tier.
Focusing exclusively on league games, I’ve picked out some of my favourite moments, which leaves out the putrid hilarity of cup exits at the hands of Walsall in the FA Cup in 2018, a Papa John’s Trophy ousting at the hands of a Leicester City toddler team, and the embarrassment of two consecutive FA Cup defeats to Mansfield.
Hopefully, you can enjoy the whimsical side to this reminiscence, as these moments have now been consigned to history…
19th January 2019: Scunthorpe 1 Sunderland 1
Our spell in League One didn’t actually start too badly.
At the beginning of 2019, Sunderland were right in the mix for the automatic promotion places. After a scrappy draw against high-flying Luton, we headed to Scunthorpe, where the Iron were deep in the fight for survival.
A game that should’ve been a walk in the park quickly became a brutal war of attrition in which neither team looked particularly dangerous. That was until, early into the second half, when Josh Maja turned in a Reece James cross, and the Lads were on their way- or so we thought.
In a dramatic turn of events, and with time running out, Adam Hammill pulled something out of his locker that even he probably didn’t know was in there: a ‘top bins’ curler that beat Jon McLaughlin and earned the home team a share of the points.
This game makes the list because it was the true turning point in the season. It was Josh Maja’s final appearance in a Sunderland shirt, and afterwards, our season slowly began its decline towards the playoffs.
4th May 2019: Southend 2 Sunderland 1
The final day of the 2018/2019 season produced, for me, the most laughable of all our moments in the third tier. Indeed, it was so bizarre, that describing it almost makes you sound like a liar.
A masked Stephen Humphrys stole a late winner for the Shrimpers with three minutes left in the season, to ensure both safety for Southend, and demoralization for Sunderland as we headed into the playoffs.
The image of the shirtless, Batman-looking Humphrys running to celebrate with the Southend faithful is one that will never be erased from my mind, and it becomes even more humorous when you realise that Southend finished the 2021/2022 season in thirteenth position... in the National League!
10th March 2020: Bristol Rovers 2 Sunderland 0
Though nobody knew it at the time, this game was significant for a multitude of reasons.
It was the final Sunderland game before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged our world and changed our lives, and in typical fashion, it was one for the storybooks - or at least one that certainly had to make this list.
Jonson Clarke-Harris scored a first-half goal from a cross, and made it a double via a spot-kick in the second half, after Max Power’s high-five clearance of the ball gave Rovers a penalty.
The 2-0 loss took the Lads out of the playoff spots on the ‘points per game’ model, which is how the final league table was determined after the season was abandoned. Not that we would have been successful in trying, but it kept us from the potential of playoff promotion.
10th April 2021 - 17th April 2021
A seven-day period that saw us descend into Danté’s Inferno, and what felt at the time would become an eternity in League One purgatory.
At the start of the week, we were still within touching distance of an automatic promotion place, just behind Peterborough and Hull. However, the absurdity of the following week saw us plummet into playoff oblivion for a second time in three seasons.
The shenanigans began against Charlton, where the scoring was opened by Josh Scowen blasting a mis-hit clearance into the roof of his own net. Charlton doubled their lead in the second half through Alex Gilbey, before Scowen provided us with a moment truly worthy of comic notoriety.
With just over ten minutes remaining, a scramble in the Charlton area led to a looping cross that ended up at the top of the eighteen-yard box. The ball was met by a falling, half-crawling Josh Scowen, who headed the ball from a yard off the deck. The ball rolled into an empty net at a snail’s pace as we pulled a goal back, before the rest of the team fell just as flat in our comeback attempt.
Three days later, we traveled to Wigan, where a fairly offside Charlie Wyke gave us an early lead. Ten minutes later, Will Keane was allowed to take three touches from the top of the six-yard box before easily levelling the game just before the break.
A quarter of an hour into the second half, Callum Lang scored an empathic winner off of his rock-hard abdomen- whilst stood between four Sunderland defenders and with Lee Burge presumably modeling on the floor.
As bad as that was, however, the week wasn’t done with us yet.
We made the trip to Blackpool where Elliot Embleton got to watch his future loan side and parent club play one of the most unfortunate games of football in history.
It was here that Sunderland tried to break the record for hitting the woodwork most times in a single match- most memorably by Aiden McGeady who hit the inside of the upright with the ball cannoning back into play rather than into the net.
Just before the hour mark, the entire week was. summed up in one play so clumsily tragic, that it simply couldn’t be made up.
Grant Leadbitter attempted an acrobatic clearance that was mis-hit and played into the path of a Blackpool winger down the left flank. The ball was cut back, crossed into the box, and scuffed by Luke Garbutt from three yards out, being deflected twice before innocently dribbling into Lee Burge’s goal.
We finished the run of fixtures fifth in the table, with no way to achieve automatic promotion. Ending the seven-day satire, we were now mathematically doomed to another playoff lottery.
The drubbings of 2021/2022
We won’t spend a lengthy amount of time on recent calamities, in light of the fact that we’ve now gone up. There’s no reason to relive the tears when we are basking in the afterglow of promotion.
I digress- there are catastrophes worth mentioning, and just for a moment, maybe we can laugh at them.
Results like the 4-0 drowning at the bottom of the Fratton Park river, or a 5-1, ten-man, Halloween eve horror show at Rotherham.
How about less than a week later, as we were battered at Hillsborough? Or the pathetically, majestic, Chris Maguire hat-trick reunion with Lincoln at the Stadium of Light? Worse still, there was the Lee Johnson-dooming, worst result in club history- to Bolton - as the top of the table faded away. Let the good times roll…
Hopefully, we can look back over the years spent in that torrid league and chuckle to ourselves about how very ‘Sunderland’ the whole thing was. Alternatively, we can try to forget the whole thing ever happened.
Now, we can turn our attention away from the tomfoolery of the last four years, redefine what ‘very Sunderland’ means, and look forward to the glorious future of restoring our club to more serious endeavours.
Others have had their laugh at our expense, and on reflection, we’ve also had our own, but the respect our name is due should now be back in the forefront of minds near and far.
Sunderland AFC are headed back where they belong, and never may we return to the depths we have risen from.