A reflection on last season - thanks for the positive memories, SAFC
It’s taken a little while for the whole season and our subsequent playoff win to sink in for me, as is probably the case for many others.
Trying and not quite making it out of League One was starting to become another thing that is “so Sunderland”, it was almost the norm.
The prospect of bouncing back in one season (as we’d done in my only previous experience of that level) turned into two seasons. And then three.
I was starting to wonder if we would ever get out. Were we destined to be isolated for five, six, maybe more years, repeatedly not quite making it back up the leagues?
Why assume we’d ever get out?
Were we forever to be criticised and lambasted for being “too much for this division”, but never quite able to scrape our way out?
But at the fourth time of asking we did get ourselves a step closer to where we all believe we belong, and reflecting on the season just gone, I felt really confident. Well, up until Christmas.
I put a tenner on the lads last August with the online bookies, backing us to win the league and go up in the automatics. That isn’t me at all, I’m not really a bookies kind of bloke.
After seeing what Lee Johnson could do with a part season in charge, listening to his theories and strategies, and hoping this would all come together in the season to come, I was flying with positivity.
Given we were entering a new season with a good coach, a new owner and a sporting director operating as one, my optimism knew no bounds.
We were told Johnson had the long-term backing of the ownership and the sporting director too, and he took us to the top of the league for the first time in what felt like bloody ages within a handful of months of the season commencing.
We bounced around the top six all year, reclaiming top spot with a 5-0 demolition of Sheffield Wednesday. Johnson won the December 2021 manager of the month award, we were playing flowing, attacking footy the majority of the time, and scraping the odd win at times when we needed too.
Yes, we were losing now and again, but it was explained as part of the pre-set expectations that we would drop points at times given we were playing with such an attacking mindset, so we weren’t to worry.
The points per game were at or above two, and despite losing heavily to teams like Arsenal in the cup, we were the better attacking side a lot of the time.
Sunderland were flying, and the feeling that this new year really could be our year was quickly ramping up.
Then January hit, and the plan fell apart.
While we admirably decided to play on despite having a number of players unavailable through COVID, that decision cost us – and Lee Johnson.
We went to Wycombe and gave away two points thanks to a 98th-minute equaliser, and a few days later Johnson had his nose rubbed in it at home to Lincoln by a typically red hot (every once in a blue moon) Chris Maguire.
We proceeded to drop points away at Accrington, letting a ten-man side equalise with 15 mins to go.
We scrambled a 1-0 win at home to Portsmouth which gave Johnson a brief respite from attention, but then that result happened - we lost 6-0 on the road away to Bolton.
The manager of the month curse bit Johnson right where it hurts, with him being dismissed within a month of accepting that gong. All those words from the board about long term plans were proved once again to be just that. Words.
Johnson was out.
We then in my view went into a “flat spin” – a flying term derived from when a plane gets into a severely uncontrolled state that is difficult for even the most skilled pilots to recover from.
We played a couple of games with caretakers who did less for our hopes of going up than arguably most fans dragged from the stand would have done.
The owners were all over the place with the new coach appointment, despite claiming they had been concerned over Johnson’s performances for a while and had been “tracking options”.
Distractions like Defoe and Keane triggered the usual rise and fall of emotions, fuelling unjustified hope. Can such appointments force valid positivity through our tired but dedicated veins? Is hoping that big names from the past could help us return to the levels we operated at back then a realistic desire?
There were more questions than answers through that period.
Issues continued as we lost to hugely out of form Doncaster in front of 38,395 fans, many of whom had returned to see the prodigal son Jermain jog back onto the pitch, only for him to do very little at all (and then retire a few weeks later…now that is “so Sunderland”).
We “built” on that Donnie defeat with a loss away to Cheltenham despite leading in the first half, and then found out that Roy Keane wasn’t coming, but Alex Neil was.
The news was taken with (at best) mixed feelings across the fan base.
Personally, I was sort of happy we hadn’t begged Roy to come at whatever cost. For too long we have heavily invested in romantic hindsight and reputations from the past that were likely to never replicate previous capabilities and outcomes.
I really wanted a coach who was stronger in the areas Johnson lacked, but could still get the lads playing decent football – decent enough to get us out of the awful league we seemed to be treading water in.
Looking back, Roy never really was what we needed.
But based on how the season panned out, Alex Neil clearly was.
Alex Neil took the helm for his first game away at AFC Wimbledon on the 12th of February, nearly two weeks after the departure of Johnson, a delay that had cost us what many saw as six guaranteed points.
He only got a draw that day, and he lost the next one at home to MK Dons (with the winner somewhat typically coming from ex-SAFC player Connor Wickham). A disappointing result, but it was clear Neil was already learning the strengths and weaknesses of his charges at some pace.
When he led the team to one of our best performances of the season – a 3-0 away win against champions to be Wigan at the end of February – the signs of things to come really did start to emerge. And how we kicked on once he got his bearings.
An undefeated March brought in eight points from a possible 12, consolidating our position as a contender for the playoff slots despite our huge dip since the new year, with strong yet hard-earned wins against teams like Fleetwood and Crewe.
Our unbeaten run continued through April’s massive seven fixtures with more demons exorcised and confidence built.
Away wins at Oxford and Morecambe were complemented by home wins against teams we often drop points against, such as Gillingham and Shrewsbury, topped off with a proper thumping of Cambridge on Wearside. Hard-earned draws and subsequent single points at home to Rotherham and away to Plymouth added to the momentum, too.
For once, we were approaching the playoffs with some form, confidence and tactical nous at the helm.
The playoffs haven’t given Sunderland supporters much joy, ever, but strangely I felt positive about the mindset of SAFC, the coach and how he was managing the media and the job at hand.
The thing that stood out most of all to me was the team spirit… when that factor of the team is evident even to us fans, it makes such a tangible difference. You can feel it on the hairs on the back of your neck during games. We had that hair-raising quality for the first time in several years, which reinforced my belief that we were finally on the up.
When we finished 5th and had to play Sheffield Wednesday home and away, I was unreasonably confident we would succeed. I felt very optimistic we had enough to take a berth under the Wembley arch – and we did, with craft, guile and skill applied aplenty across the two legs.
My reflection on that weekend at Wembley is enough for another piece that I will finish drafting soon, but looking back solely on the season we have experienced, I just wanted to bask in the smile that I cannot wipe off my face, and express my thanks to SAFC for finally giving us some positive memories after so many years of bitter disappointment.
Yes, we could have done it an easier way, maybe with Lee Johnson taking us all the way up as champions. If we had gone up that way, that would be so “not Sunderland” though, and this smile from winning in the face of so many historic losses and such adversity would have for some weird reason been way less long-lived.
How we got there aside, after four seasons of misery and being the brunt of jokes from all levels of football, we finally have a season to be happy about.
We are all starting to build a block of new, positive memories about our club, the first of which were gathered over that wonderful Wembley weekend. As we look ahead, we hope for more positivity and rebuilding, with a mid-table result next season being more than enough for me, so do that if you must, Alex and the lads.
As we have become accustomed to expect, that was some rollercoaster of a season, but come what may I cannot wait to get into the next one and to build more and more happy thoughts and memories.
Memories about loving this club, with my son, through hell or high water as needed, with tens of thousands of other fans just like us by our sides.