It was tense towards the end, but Sunderland left relegation-threatened Cardiff City with all three points on Easter Monday. Dennis Cirkin’s third goal of the season was enough for the 1-0 win which, thanks to results elsewhere, confirmed us to be mathematically safe from relegation - although, let’s be honest, we’ve been looking up rather than down for most of this season.
The result means we can well and truly enjoy the remaining five matches, three of which will see us play at home. It is a unique situation to be in, and one which leaves us with plenty to ponder in both the short and long term.
With 15 points left to play for this season, we find ourselves tantalizingly four points from the playoffs. It’s easy to look back at the games where we’ve shot ourselves in the foot and think that if we’d just hung on here and there, we’d be on the right side of the dotted playoff line - unfortunately, life is just too short for this.
In the summer, avoiding relegation was the minimum requirement. Once the campaign got underway, however, it quickly became apparent that we’d be more than fine. That has turned out to be the case, and it has been an enjoyable season.
The pressure is off for Mowbray’s men from now until full time at Preston on May 6. Regardless of how these games go, we are in a good place heading into the summer. This, for me, is part of the long-term plan that this football club has been crying out for.
The Championship table shows the financial fragility and incompetence of many teams. Two out of the current bottom three sides have received points deductions, with Wigan being punished for failing to pay their players. We may not be perfect, but we certainly look it when you compare us to many of the clubs we have called rivals.
We have had our fair share of financial scares in the past, but it feels as though we are a good distance away from being launched into the abyss. The future is bright with rising attendances and a transfer policy that encourages the nurturing of talent over the splurging of tens and millions of pounds on players who are not likely to stick around for very long or be remotely worth it (looking at you, Chelsea).
The new model and way of progressing the club are still very much in their infancy, but with at least a mid-table finish confirmed, we know that we are moving in the right direction. Once the season draws to an end, it will be important to take some time to look back on what we’ve achieved. We’ve heard the ‘we’ve done so well without a striker/ all the injuries’ phrase rolled out for most of the season, but it rings true.
You can count on one hand the number of matches for which we’ve had a full complement of players, yet we sit as the fourth top scorers in the division. It’s not to be sniffed at, and few clubs would have thrived in the way we’ve managed to. That must be respected, and the players and staff deserve plenty of credit.
That being said, the summer which is approaching us at some speed is going to be as important as it is exciting. We’ve achieved the first hard part, remaining in the Championship, but the rebuild is going to test the resolve of the club.
We can’t go into the summer naively thinking that bids for our top performers won’t come in. A downside to playing the kind of top-quality football we’ve seen from Sunderland this season is that it’s going to attract the attention of clubs with far more money than ourselves. How we handle ourselves when these inevitable bids come in is crucial.
The club has shown great ambition and bravery in these last few years, and in order to take the next step to where we want to be, we need to continue developing players at the same and even quicker rate.
The season could tick away in relative comfort, or our tantalizing proximity to the top six could keep us stressed right up until May 8. Whatever happens, the groundwork for next season is well underway.
We’re in a very good place heading into the spring, and the optimism is well-earned. Riding the wave of positivity through to the new campaign is the best way to round off what has been a fantastic return to the second tier.