Growing up during the 2000s gave me a fair share of first impressions when it came to the rollercoaster that was supporting Sunderland AFC.
From promotion under Roy Keane to the famous drubbing of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge under Steve Bruce, it’s easy to understand why someone could get hooked from an early age.
Without the lows, we could never experience the highs and Sunderland has never been shy in that department, as the last six years have almost felt like a fever dream.
Following relegation to the Championship, every Saturday at the Stadium of Light felt like a weekly game show with the tagline of ‘It couldn’t, could it?’
Every player on a goalscoring drought, every team on a poor run of form, and every manager playing for their job seemed to one-up each other every week and managed to create an atmosphere so numb that nothing surprised fans when relegation to League One was confirmed in May 2018.
Having seen attendance figures dip to an all time low and with many friends and followers around me calling it a day, the repeated failure to escape League One landed the club, labelled by many as a ‘sleeping giant’, in a state of limbo.
Yet those who observed on a weekly basis had little to no hope, but if you fast forward to April 2023, things are looking slightly different.
Following the arrival of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and the implementation of a true footballing identity, the club has managed to emerge from the depths of the River Wear and back into the spotlight.
Having a clear structure and direction has placed us in a fantastic position to continue to develop talent whilst maintaining and nurturing a Tier One Level academy to supplement the imports.
During his tenure, Kristjaan Speakman has transformed a squad of ageing mercenaries into a youthful side of extreme exuberance and confidence, and gone are the days of paying excessive wages for players in the twilight of their careers looking for one final payday.
The unearthing of talent and the nurturing of raw ability are now synonymous with this Sunderland side, and you’d be shocked to think the national media have finally caught on and are handing Tony Mowbray and company their due since promotion from League One last season.
Having gained promotion via the playoffs following an impressive sixteen match unbeaten run under Alex Neil, expectations had to be realistic this season and avoiding relegation was, for myself and many other fans, the desirable outcome.
From the first game against Coventry, it was clear that Neil wanted to remain with his 3-5-2 system of defensive solidity with the aim of snatching points on the break and staying up in any way possible.
Now, with Speakman’s recruitment and Mowbray’s creative attacking philosophy, it’s been demonstrated that a young team can play fast flowing and expansive football whilst putting points on the board in a higher division with relative ease.
We’ve produced arguably some of the highest-tempo football the Stadium of Light has ever witnessed, and to those who still feel sceptical about this notion, there’s some remarkable data to back it up.
Courtesy of @SAFC_Analytics on Twitter, as of the run leading into the Easter weekend, we were averaging the second least number of headed shots and crosses (albeit without a true number nine) but interestingly, we’d also attempted the most dribbles, suffered the most fouls and played the third lowest number of long passes out of all Championship sides this season.
The clear evidence is that we’ve played short, incisive and ultimately effective football that’s caused opposition teams all sorts of problems despite fielding one of the youngest squads in recent Championship history.
All the signs indicate an upward trajectory and fans shouldn’t feel that this season has been a disappointment by any stretch of the imagination.
Next season is an opportunity to consolidate our assets, to further develop a blossoming core of players and ultimately challenge for a playoff place from the outset, hopefully without the injuries and misfortunes suffered this season.
With everything in place to become a hive of young talent, there’s no shame in saying that next season could finally be the time for Sunderland AFC to raise its sleeping head and elevate itself into the foreground as one of the biggest clubs in the footballing pyramid.