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Cardiff City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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Editorial: A rollercoaster of a season with a guaranteed happy ending (probably)...

It’s been a season full of peaks and troughs but this squad deserve a lot of credit to be still in the mix for a play-off position with just five games remaining.

Photo by Athena Pictures/Getty Images

It’s an odd place to be in as a Sunderland fan at the moment. Very rarely in my lifetime have we had a side that are sitting in a mid-table position that I have been so proud of.

Since our capitulation against Alex Neil’s Stoke City on the 4th March, even though we’ve picked up only 9 points from a possible 18, the reaction of this young squad has been something to admire.

We all looked at the fixture list that followed the Stoke disaster and wondered where the next point would come from, but a week later we put in a gutsy performance to take all three points at Norwich.

Then we were unlucky to end up on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline against a very good Sheffield United on our own patch, where we were then unfortunate to only draw against high-flying Luton Town three days later.

Norwich City v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship
Abdoullah Ba scores the winning goal for Sunderland at Norwich City
Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Burnley away were next up in front of the cameras and everyone wrote us off, but the Lads got a well-earned draw, which took us into the Easter weekend where a four-point haul against Hull City and Cardiff City could have very easily been six.

There is a slight element of frustration in some of those results, especially the draws against Luton and Hull, and a feeling of what might have been had we taken maximum points - but it’s easy to forget what this young squad have had to work through for us to be in the position we’re in now.

The bumps in the road began in the first month of the season when Alex Neil legged it, which meant starting all over again with Tony Mowbray. For a young squad that responded so well to Neil’s appointment to achieve promotion from League One, the impact of this shouldn’t be underestimated and a lot of credit has to go to Tony Mowbray.

In the few weeks after the managerial change we lost Ross Stewart and Ellis Simms (both first time around) and had to work things through without a striker.

In December we lost Corry Evans and Elliot Embleton, who were ruled out for the rest of the season, and at the end of that month we lost Ellis Simms for a second time - and this time for good - when Sean Dyche made the call.

Fulham v Sunderland: Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
The turning point of the season?
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Then in January we lost Ross Stewart for a second time - and this time for the rest of the season - when he picked up an injury at Fulham in the FA Cup. We all know how big a blow this was, but to highlight the scale, Amad Diallo equalled Ross Stewart with his penalty against Hull City on Good Friday to become our joint top scorer in the Championship.

Stewart bagged 10 goals in 11 starts in the Championship and it’s not an exact science, but with those numbers it’s easy to speculate that a final total of 25-30 goals was beyond the Scottish striker, and where would those goals have fired us.

The other knock-on effect, without getting into the ins and outs of the January transfer window at this juncture, was that it left us short in that position for the 17 league fixtures that remained.

It’s also easy to forget that it is the first time that Aji Alese, Abdoullah Ba, Jewison Bennette, Dennis Cirkin, Amad Diallo, Pierre Ekwah, Trai Hume, Edouard Michut, Dan Neil, Anthony Patterson and Ross Stewart have played in the second tier of English football and some having their first experience of English football full stop.

Luke O’Nien could probably be added to that list having been brought on for one substitute appearance in the Championship in the last minute for Watford back in 2014 at the age of 19.

That’s at least 12 players who have turned out for the Lads this season who had zero experience of playing in the Championship and that’s not including the likes of Joe Anderson, Niall Huggins and Isaac Lihadji who have had cameos on the pitch so far this season.

Sunderland v Luton Town - Sky Bet Championship
Luke O’Nien
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Experienced players such as Lynden Gooch and Alex Pritchard have had decent spells out through injury and recently we lost Dan Ballard when he picked up a knock on international duty.

This young squad have had a lot to deal with since August and it’s not only the achievement that we have a shot of making the top-six with five games remaining, but the football at times we have produced to get us there is something to celebrate - regardless of the outcome following the final whistle at Preston North End on the 8th May.

The goal at Reading, the fourth against Hull over Easter, that started close to our own corner flag, amongst others we’ve tucked away with a touch of class this season will be talked about for some time to come.

From this Saturday we have five games to complete this season’s league campaign in just over four weeks and it’s not often we get to relax and enjoy watching the outcome of a season without the pressure impacting our daily lives.

I’ll be taking advantage of that fact and enjoying the run-in regardless of the outcome, because whether it’s a top-six finish or mid-table, this young squad have done us proud this season.


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