The 4th December 2020 - three days after a manager-less Sunderland drew 1-1 at home against Burton Albion, which was our third successive 1-1 draw - we sat 7th in League One and were without a win in six games in all competitions.
It was one day before the appointment of Lee Johnson as the new manager, which was also the same day we went down 1-0 at home to bottom of the table Wigan Athletic, in the midst of a takeover of the club where we were in a period where there seemed to be more questions than answers.
The 4th December 2020 seems like an age ago, but it was only just over two years, three managers, two owners and four transfer windows ago - it was the day Kristjaan Speakman was brought to the club as sporting director.
Twenty-four hours after he was appointed, in that 1-0 defeat to struggling Wigan Athletic, this was our line-up...
Saturday 5th December, 2020
Sky Bet League One
Sunderland 0-1 Wigan Athletic
Sunderland: Burge, McLaughlin, Wright, Flanagan, Hume (McFadzean), Maguire, Leadbitter, Scowen, McGeady (Diamond), Power (Embleton), Grigg (Graham) Substitutes not used: Matthews, Sanderson
It doesn’t make for pleasant reading on the whole.
Only two of the members of that matchday squad remain as members of our current squad, Bailey Wright and Elliot Embleton, and it’s probably fair to say that they can be described as squad players in the current setup.
There have been four transfer windows in the time Speakman has been at the club to achieve this turnaround, but the first window back in January 2021 opened less than four weeks after his appointment was confirmed. This leaves essentially three transfer windows that this transformation has been accomplished.
Add into the mix an unbelievably brave decision in the summer of 2021 to rip apart a side that reached the playoffs completely and start again, and it shouldn’t be underestimated just how brave a decision this was, especially when the intention was to trust the task of taking Sunderland back to the second tier to a squad full of kids.
In the exodus was a thirty-goal striker and a midfield player who had experience of getting out of the division, and both went on to win the title with Wigan the following season. It was a huge call. But, Kristjaan Speakman and the club had a plan - and they stuck to it, completely transforming the squad in the space of one summer.
Thorben Hoffmann, Corry Evans, Callum Doyle, Alex Pritchard, Dennis Cirkin, Nathan Broadhead, Niall Huggins, Frederik Alves and Leon Dajaku all joined the ranks in the summer of 2021 - mostly young players, with a sprinkling of experience in the form of Evans and Pritchard.
Then came the call to part ways with a manager who had us sitting 3rd in the table following a 6-0 humiliation at struggling Bolton. As embarrassing as that was, the decision to change out Lee Johnson wasn’t a straightforward one, as shown by the fact we didn’t win in the five games following his dismissal.
We’ve been through another summer since then where it can’t be denied that we came out of the window stronger than when it opened back in June - and this time it was in preparation for the Championship, where it could be argued we are ahead of schedule in the club’s progression plan.
Looking at the squad now compared to the one that took to the field only twenty-four hours after Kristjaan Speakman walked through the door is night and day. There have been mistakes on the way, and he would have been the first to say on his first day at the club that he was guaranteed to make a mistake at some point.
Every transfer is a risk. Lionel Messi joining PSG was a risk for instance, and Sir Alex Ferguson made some howlers at Manchester United back in the day - does anyone remember Eric Djemba-Djemba? He was so good they named him twice.
The bottom line is that we have had this structure in place for just over two years and four transfer windows (arguably three if you consider windows they were able to plan for) and we’ve gone from just outside the League One playoffs to just outside the Championship playoffs with a young and improving side.
If you can’t tell, I’m looking forward to what the next couple of weeks might have in store for us.
Why do we keep needing to talk about officials? I thought we might have left this behind in League One, but nope, they seem to be just as bad here in the Championship… maybe not quite as often, but yeah, they’re here.
Quite often it’s not even the big calls that are the main gripe, it’s just the general inconsistency from whistle to whistle. The same type of challenge will be a free-kick one minute and a few minutes later it will be deemed as nothing and play can go on.
It just needs to be better.
Getting a break at home...
It seems like we can’t get a break on home soil and get a run going at the Stadium of Light this season. At the weekend against Swansea we looked like much the better side for the first twenty minutes, and it was just a matter of how long it would take us to break the deadlock - but then we shot ourselves in the foot.
Looking at recent home games, we took commanding positions against Burnley and West Brom, only to make costly mistakes. The Cardiff City game is the only one we probably point to as simply a poor performance where we didn’t maybe deserve anything, but other than that we appear to be our own worst enemy at home.
We’d be bottom six in the table if it was based on how sides have fared on home soil, but it doesn’t tell the full story. We’ve seen some good performances, but haven’t got the results we’ve maybe deserved.
A bit of consistency on our own patch while maintaining our away form would surely see us end up in a top-six position in May.