Confession time: when the final whistle blew at the Cardiff City Stadium on Easter Monday, my overriding emotion wasn’t elation or even excitement at Sunderland narrowing the gap to the top six to a mere four points with five games to play.
Instead, I simply felt an incredible sense of relief as Dennis Cirkin’s winner secured the victory that also ensured Championship football at the minimum for the Lads next season.
The goal, much like the game itself, wasn’t a thing of timeless beauty but at this stage, aesthetics generally play second fiddle to results and this was a strong response as the players showed no obvious hangover from the Good Friday draw with Hull.
So, ahead of the final swing of matches, now feels like the time to take stock before we gear ourselves up for what could be an exciting dash to the finishing line. 2022/2023 has been memorable, and it’s also been transformational.
Last summer, as we embarked on our first second tier campaign for five years, the prospect of mounting a second successive promotion challenge felt remote, despite the questionable quality of the Championship and the undoubted talent within our ranks.
Personally, I simply wanted us to ensure that we weren’t hovering just above the dreaded trapdoor when the clocks went forward. That’s exactly how it’s panned out, and it turns out that I needn’t have worried in the slightest.
Make no mistake: the fact that we’re in with a shout of the playoffs represents an impressive achievement from this squad.
At no stage have we looked like bottom six fodder or as though the step up from League One was proving too much for us to handle. This is in stark contrast to last summer, when the argument of us ‘only finishing fifth in League One’ was being used as proof that a major struggle was imminent.
Indeed, for the majority of the season, we’ve added real value to the division with a squad filled with young and exciting players, a purposeful and exciting style of football and an ethos cultivated by Tony Mowbray that puts faith in youth and has led to the biggest cultural shift at Sunderland in years.
Perhaps my sense of relief at mathematical safety being assured was simply the ghosts of 2017/2018 having one final fling and reminding everyone that you can never take your league status for granted.
That season, filled with turmoil, rancour and bitterness, hasn’t been easily forgotten as we slid into the third tier of English football in a state of utter disgrace. The names went down in our history, but for the wrong reasons entirely and the subsequent four years were some of the most tumultuous any of us had ever experienced.
This time, it’s been different.
Promise has replaced pessimism, application has replaced apathy and togetherness has replaced division. Instead of looking over our shoulders, we’ve spent the majority of the campaign riding on a wave of excitement as games have often been won in spectacular fashion and reputations have been enhanced.
Of course, there have been missteps and frustrations along the way, but such is the attitude of this team and the selfless nature of the individuals who comprise it that setbacks have been dealt with, and often impressively.
Since the 1-5 hammering against Stoke, the players have responded with some gritty draws and two excellent away wins, proving that they’re capable of riding out the storms as well as making the most of the good times.
The diverse makeup of our team, from the experience of Danny Batth and Luke O’Nien to the wizardry of Jack Clarke and Amad, as well as the European flair of Edouard Michut and Abdoullah Ba, has set the club on a new path and rarely in twenty seven years have I felt such deep-seated optimism about the future.
And so, with five games left to play, starting with what’s sure to be a full-blooded clash with Birmingham on Saturday, the players can truly play without any pressure.
After a campaign marked by patchy home form, fixing that weakness with consecutive wins would be a huge boost and would set up the final three fixtures perfectly.
If we do succeed in gatecrashing the top six, we should embrace that challenge come what may, and see if these players can lead us back to the top flight at the end of what’s been a memorable campaign, regardless of the final outcome.
If they don’t succeed, however, let’s not denigrate them for falling short at the final hurdle.
These lads have represented our club with pride, they’ve relished the challenge of wearing the red and white stripes and delivering for the fans who’ve backed them so vociferously all season.
I just hope they give it everything they’ve got as they enter the home straight, and whether it’s to be a playoff run or another year in the Championship, it’s felt like a new dawn has broken on Wearside this season.