The Sunderland squad have seen in the new year in the North West, stopping in the area after the superb Wigan Athletic win on Thursday in order to prepare for Blackpool later today.
When they emerge from the tunnel this afternoon the side will be backed by another sell out away section, with thousands of supporters returning to the same town in which they began 2019 too.
On that occasion it was for a League One fixture and whilst only four short years have passed since then, a whole lot of water has passed under the bridge in that time.
Politics and the pandemic have changed society in many different ways, whereas Sunderland AFC has also undergone a huge turnaround since finding itself in the third tier for only the second time in its history.
Admittedly, at this point in 2018-19 COVID was unheard of and an immediate return to the Championship seemed on the cards – an achievement in itself given the sheer volume of players needing to be signed prior to the campaign starting. After years of struggle fans were getting used to experiencing the winning feeling on a regular basis again, and whilst the side were not able to fully get to grips with the division it was felt that there was enough individual talent to pull them through. The aftermath of a double relegation began to hang heavy however and in the end the promotion push would run out of steam.
There were several factors that contributed to this, some of which were historic and some of which seemed to have been caused by the new ownership that had taken over at the start of the season. It is widely accepted though that one of the main issues was the departure in January of top scorer Josh Maja, whose importance to the team was certainly felt at Bloomfield Road.
The youngster flicked Aiden McGeady’s left wing cross past Mark Howard to put Sunderland ahead in the 23rd minute on this day. It was a narrow lead that felt all the nervier given the side’s propensity to finish games 1-1 – another problem that loomed large in the final reckoning. The Lads were at least able to hold on this time though, but whilst they finished the game much the stronger of the two sides they did have to ride their luck at points.
Chris Taylor hit the post from only yards out as Blackpool looked to respond to the opener quickly and in the second half it needed a brilliant piece of defending from Jack Baldwin to retain the lead, sliding in at the death to stop the ball from trickling agonisingly over the line. Even then there was an element of fortune though, Armand Gnadduillet seeing his effort being slowed down by Jon McLaughlin initially before Baldwin’s clearance ricocheted off the woodwork to safety.
The win kept Sunderland third and within reach of the automatic promotion spots, but three more 1-1 draws followed in the league to frustrate hopes. The last of this sequence was at Scunthorpe United, who snatched a point late on having trailed to another piece of Maja opportunism - it was a familiar story, but the goal proved to be the striker’s last for the club after he joined Bordeaux soon after.
Rumours of Maja leaving during the new year transfer window had been rumbling on in the background pretty much ever since he’d become a first team regular and were rife by the time of the trip to Blackpool. Since arriving in the summer the new owners had been ‘firefighting’ to deal with the administrative and financial problems they had inherited, but despite identifying the need to protect themselves with better contracts for the Academy of Light’s youth prospects talks with star graduate Maja had long since stalled.
His move to France was perhaps inevitable, with the blow softened slightly with the suggestion that it meant monies still owed to Bordeaux for the previous transfer of Wahbi Khazri would now be waived. What wasn’t so well received were the attempts to replace his goals, and whilst supporters could see how past decisions had hamstrung those now in charge at the Stadium of Light it was becoming clearer all the time that they didn’t have a solid enough plan to take things forward either.
The accusations of muddled thinking and mistruths that were being aimed at the club hierarchy became louder; discussions which have thankfully become a lot less common since Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has taken control. Sunderland appears to be running to a much more coherent strategy now than in 2019 but we could be about to go through a similarly worrying episode if paper talk is to be believed.
Although not nearly as likely as the Maja sale, there is the possibility we could lose Ross Stewart this month. Successful strikers will always be in demand but any departures this time would at least come with a suitable fee and the strong possibility that suitable replacements will be scouted. Jack Ross wasn’t able to say as much back in the day, but as we revisit the Las Vegas of the North four years on Sunderland’s recruitment is now a lot less of a gamble.
Tuesday 1 January 2019
Sky Bet League One
Sunderland 1 (Maja 23)
Sunderland: McLaughlin; O’Nien, Flanagan, Baldwin, James; Gooch, Cattermole, Power, McGeady; Maja (Maguire 86), Wyke (McGeouch 84). Unused: Ruiter, Ozturk, Mumba, Kimpioka, Sinclair.
Bloomfield Road, attendance 10, 994