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

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Sunderland have escaped from the League One swamp, and not before time!

After four years of League One purgatory, Sunderland are finally on an upward trajectory once again. Lars Knutsen looks at why the future on Wearside could be bright

Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

After four years of historic lows for our club, which have often been hard for us to endure, we are finally looking forward to a brighter future.

I am not saying that nothing good came from this traumatic period, but part of the euphoria shown by our fans at Wembley on the 25th of May was because our time in League One is now over.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Let those words sink in. Let the whole notion of planning for our first season in the Championship since 2017/2018 engage us, because we are preparing in a structured, stepwise and organised way, as a progressive, well-run football club.

I am fortunate enough to own a Land Rover Discovery; a capable offroad vehicle. There is some farmland close to where we live, and with road tyres on the vehicle, I recently ventured onto what proved to be wet clay covered with a thin layer of grass.

In attempting to drive the SUV forward, the wheels simply spun and dug themselves deeper, and I had to work hard to to get the car to emerge unscathed and ready for use.

To me, this incident felt exactly like the period we have just come through, when things often felt hopeless at times, and especially during the COVID-shortened season of 2019/2020, when we ended the season in eighth place under Phil Parkinson.

Back then, it felt like our wheels were spinning, but there was no forward movement, and it led to a record low finish: just sixteen wins from thirty six league games in that season.

During the League One years, under the control of four different managers, we often played against physically challenging teams who blatantly wasted time, and also found ourselves subjected to weak refereeing. This was during a time when the world was, and is struggling with the pandemic and its consequences.

Trips to Fleetwood Town, Morecambe or Accrington Stanley just did not feel like the level we aspired to play at, and there did not seem to be a plan for how we could move forward, at a time when we really needed our club to give everyone a lift during bleak times.

I am euphoric that those four years are behind us, but going even further back, I still believe that David Moyes, despite his rebirth at West Ham, has a lot to answer for, with Sunderland dropping out of the Premiership with twenty four points in 2017.

So, what might the future hold for us?

The challenge of the Championship

The whole ethos of the Championship is based around clubs being run responsibly, as I believe we now are.

The failure of this theory, however, has been witnessed with Sheffield Wednesday, Reading, and the high-profile case of Derby County, where the EFL have been decisive in subtracting points for financial irregularities. The fact that Derby and Wednesday, who fought so well against us in the playoff semi-finals, are now both in League One tells its own story.

Wednesday were first charged by the EFL in November 2019, after the league discovered that the club had breached the £39 million ceiling of permitted losses, as set out in the profitability and sustainability regulations.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The EFL imposed the charges because they found that Wednesday had exceeded that figure by over £18million - despite the club selling Hillsborough to owner Dejphon Chansiri for £60 million, as they tried to avoid going over the loss limit.

There have been a number of similarly dubious ground sale deals in the Championship, which shows how important it is for a major club such as Sunderland to be well-run and financially inscrutable.

It won’t be easy, due to the competitive nature of the league, but in Alex Neil, we have a boss who is capable of coaxing excellent performances from our group of talented players.

Madrox Questions

One day, it may become clear exactly how much funding, if any, was committed to Sunderland AFC by Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Juan Sartori, as the ‘Madrox Group’.

Sunderland v Charlton Athletic - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Following their 2018 acquisition of the club, Sartori said:

‘Sunderland is a huge club, the seventh largest in England, a club with a lot of history and a big following, and that’s what made it attractive’.

Like many, I am delighted to see the back of Methven, seemed to have trouble in genuinely relating to our fans. I have nothing against Old Etonians, as I have come across many, but had he ever climbed up to Penshaw Monument or tried to understand anything about the area we come from?

He always seemed out of place in a working-class city, and I am sure that he would admit that he relates best to those who come from a privileged background. Presumably, he saw his involvement at the Stadium of Light as a way to enhance his image- partly through the Netflix platform of ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’.

Even the apparent threat to sell his shares to cryptocurrency group ‘The Fans Together’ felt like an attempt to force Kyril Louis-Dreyfus to take on the shares and increase his holding in the club to a decisive 51%.

Personally, I quite like Stewart Donald, despite the fact that he often sounded rather like Ricky Gervais.

When I met him at the International Fans’ Day in February 2020, I felt that he had developed a genuine fondness for Sunderland, and to be fair to him, he came forward to take responsibility for our future at a time when no one else did.

The whole saga of his ownership has been on a whole different scale to that of Eastleigh, to put it mildly.

Madrox did appear to gamble with the future of our club, and we are still unsure as to whether they ever injected actual funds into the club, or whether it was merely guarantees.

Mistakes have been made which doubtless extended the anguish for Sunderland fans, but I believe that Donald would argue that it has ended well: he is still around, and we are now back in the Championship.

The upside of League One

The positives I would note from our third tier exile are how the club has become closer to the community, with the work of the Foundation of Light even more prominent now, and the excellence of the various Sunderland AFC podcasts, especially Roker Report.

On the other hand, it has been tiresome and stressful to see the turnover of managers at the Stadium of Light.

Like many fans, I was genuinely concerned when Lee Johnson was sacked late in January, because some terrible defeats followed. As the remainder of the season unfolded, however, we built up amazing momentum and didn’t lose an away game after February 8th.

In addition, Alex Neil handled the stresses of the League One playoffs with aplomb, and ultimately guided us back to the Championship in historic fashion.

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

The fact that we have sold close to 30,000 season tickets ahead of the new season is hugely significant. This demonstrates that there is a renewed sense of optimism and positivity, and that despite four years of turbulence, the fans are truly excited about the new era we are entering.

Let’s hope for some managerial stability, and that on the field, we can put six years of collective misery behind us.

With a stable and talented squad, steady ownership and progressive management in place, along with a good recruitment system, I feel a growing sense of excitement for the coming season.

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