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

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Ambition versus realism: The conundrum of an acceptable league position for 2022/2023

Would a mid-table finish represent success for Sunderland next season, or should we be aiming higher? Phil West looks at both sides of the argument

Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Just over halfway through the 1999/2000 season, as Sunderland were navigating their way through the top flight with relative comfort, Kevin Phillips was interviewed and asked for his thoughts on our prospects for the remainder of the campaign.

“Safety is our aim. Two more wins and we’re there, and then we’ll try and aim for as high a place as we can,” he replied.

This was at a time when optimism was rampant on Wearside, as Peter Reid’s buccaneering team seemed to make ridiculously light work of elbowing their way into the banquet and flirting with a European place for much of the season.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Sunderland v Southampton Photo by Steve Morton/EMPICS via Getty Images

Phillips, however, was acutely aware of the big picture, notably the magical mark of 42 points that was considered the total required for safety, and the fact that anything over and above was very much a bonus for a newly-promoted side.

This leads us to the present day, as we gear up for the Championship, and interesting debates about potential finishing positions and ambition continue to simmer.

On Saturday, I posted a Twitter poll to try and gauge people’s opinions on the subject and to find out exactly what kind of final league position fans are targeting in 2022/2023.

When the poll ended, 42% of people had voted that they would be happy with a 16th-11th place finish next season, 34% were aiming for between 11th and 6th, and 13% were hopeful of a top-six berth.

Some of the comments were interesting, with many people saying that they simply wanted to enjoy a season free from the threat of relegation and that it is important to ensure stability before embarking on another promotion challenge.

Without a doubt, the first task after arriving in a new division is to secure your place in it, to ensure that you are safely away from the mire of the relegation battle, and with foundations in place that can help you during subsequent campaigns.

That thought should be uppermost in Sunderland’s mind next season. By the time next spring arrives, we need to be looking upwards, rather than nervously over our shoulders and trying to calculate how many points we might need to survive.

Of course, the desire to spend as little time in the Championship as possible is understandable.

From 2018 to 2022, there was a restlessness and an urgency to escape League One, which wasn’t unexpected, but I would like to hope that in terms of trying to launch a Premier League promotion bid, there is more patience shown.

Many of the club’s attributes, such as heritage, stadium capacity, and fanbase, are of the highest standard, but that alone won’t guarantee a ticket back to the top table. A top-quality recruitment model, targeting the right profile of players, and a stable boardroom are all essential, too.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League 1 Play-Off S-F Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The ultimate aim has to be to reach the top flight once more, but without rock-solid foundations and the ability to compete from day one, that task will be all the more arduous, In the Championship, we ought to be a major attraction for potential signings, but we cannot repeat the mistakes of years gone by.

For proof of this, you only have to look at two Premier League teams, in Leeds United and Nottingham Forest.

They spent sixteen and twenty three years respectively away from the top table (with some time spent in League One, as well) before finally reclaiming a place among the elite. Two historically successful clubs, one with two European Cups to their name, and each with a fanatical fanbase similar to ours, who endured some tough times before emerging stronger for the experience.

As he has made abundantly clear on multiple occasions, Alex Neil is an ambitious, driven man.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

He certainly sees the potential of Sunderland and undoubtedly wants us to secure a place back in the Premier League as swiftly as possible.

However, Neil is also a realist. He will be fully aware that next season will see us endure tricky spells of form and periods where questions may be asked of himself and of the team. How we navigate such periods will be key, as will be our ability to put together extended winning runs.

At forty one, Neil is the same age as Reid was when he began to really turbo-charge things at Sunderland, and I see absolutely no reason why he couldn’t stay for a similar amount of time, and firmly stamp his mark on the club.

We all long for the day when the Premier League flag is flying above the Stadium of Light once again, where Sky Sports are regularly broadcasting our games to the world, and when the country’s best players are stepping off team coaches outside the stadium.

There is absolutely no reason why it can’t happen, but perhaps that road will be slightly more arduous than we might hope for. In that sense, it will be all the sweeter when we do finally make it.

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