As the festive season of 2018 approached, it looked to everyone that the Lads were on course for a swift return to the Championship.
Until the visit of Daniel Stendel’s Barnsley on this day back in 2018, Sunderland had only lost one league game of the 18 played up to that point - and more importantly in the context of how the season played out, seven were drawn.
Considering what Jack Ross found as he arrived to take the job at the Stadium of Light that summer, it was a blistering start following a nervy 2-1 win on the opening day over Charlton Athletic with a last minute diving header from Lynden Gooch.
Across October and into November, there was an eight game winning streak in all competitions, and it felt like automatic promotion was on the cards with Sunderland sitting 2nd in League One ahead of the Tykes visit to the north-east - four points behind leaders Portsmouth.
Two points below Ross’ side in 3rd, were Barnsley, which made this midweek tie in wet and windy conditions have the appearance of a game that could prove vital towards the business end of the season.
In a nervy opening twenty minutes, neither side really threatened, until after around twenty minutes when Aiden McGeady had appeared to have been fouled in the box with a clumsy tackle and the ref pointed to the spot.
McGeady dusted himself down, and in front of the South Stand, calmly sent the keeper the wrong way and rolled the ball to the keeper's right to open the scoring.
A minute later, it was the turn of Sunderland’s new goalscoring sensation Josh Maja to get in on the act with his eleventh league goal of the season. A good ball by Adam Matthews into the striker's feet meant that Maja had one defender to turn inside out before curling the with his left foot into the far corner with his left foot.
If it appeared to be game over this early on, then around ten minutes later, it looked even worse for the away side. Once again it was McGeady orchestrating things with a run down the left, before squaring the ball to Gooch, who impressively finished form the edge of the box.
Five minutes before half time, however, the visitors gave themselves hope of getting back into the game. A run and cross from Zeki Fryers down the left resulted in the ball landing at the feet of Kieffer Moore, whose first effort was saved by Jon McLaughlin, but after two botched efforts from Gooch to clear, Moore had a second opportunity which he took.
The goal resulted in the second half being slightly more nervy than it should have been, and then on the hour mark, it was time for nails to be bitten when Moore claimed his second - this time heading home from a corner at the front post.
It was game on as Barnsley smelled a point and the Lads were nervously probing for a fourth to create a bit of breathing space, and with just under ten minutes remaining, relief arrived.
Gooch drove forward down the right before squaring it to George Honeyman on the edge of the box, who then slid it out to McGeady on the left, who cleverly and unselfishly, squared across the box to substitute Luke O’Nien, who sealed maximum points for Sunderland.
This victory placed Ross’ side 2nd and two points clear of Luton Town in 3rd with a game in hand. I know what my response might have been at this point if it was suggested we’d spend four years in League One.
Tuesday 27th November, 2018
Stadium of Light
Sunderland 4-2 Barnsley
[McGeady (pen) 19’, Maja 20’, Gooch 32’, O’Nien 83’ - Moore 41’, 61’]
Sunderland: McLaughlin, Matthews, Flanagan, Baldwin, James, Maguire (Sinclair), Power, Honeyman, McGeady, Gooch (Oviedo), Maja (O’Nien) Substitutes not used: Patterson, Ozturk, Mumba, Hackett
Barnsley: Davies, Cavare, Fryers (Brown), McGeehan, Pinnock, Lindsay, Potts (Moncur), Mowatt, Moore, Woodrow (Adeboyejo), Thiam Substitutes not used: Greatorex, Pinillos, Jackson, Bahre