So, it’s come down to this.
After forty three league games, a litany of exquisite goals and thrilling results, of sickening setbacks and promising performances, Sunderland’s season has been crystallised into what amounts to a three game knockout tournament.
Is it to be Championship football again next season or the exciting prospect of the best teams in the land pencilling in a trip to the Stadium of Light? We’ll soon find out in what promises to be a nervy and highly charged three game swing against West Bromwich Albion, Watford, and Preston.
Let’s be in no doubt here: the sought-after prize of a place in the playoffs and a shot at a ticket to the Premier League remains very much a possibility for the Lads, despite regular protestations to the contrary.
On the other hand, you can bet that rival fans are banging the same drum, writing similarly optimistic articles and tweets and having optimistic discussions on podcasts. This is the Championship at its most fierce, where results matter above all and how you pick them up is secondary.
Scuffed winners or glorious long range strikes, complete performances or gritty wins, who cares as long as you’re above that dotted line when the final ball is kicked? This season, we’ve experienced both sides of the coin, which should give us genuine hope of gatecrashing the party.
For Sunderland, the picture remains intriguingly poised ahead of this weekend’s trip to the Midlands.
Even after Tuesday’s slip up against Huddersfield, results on Wednesday went our way, leaving us within snapping distance of the top six and keeping a keen eye on how our rivals are faring.
That we’re in this position, given the litany of injuries and challenging recent fixtures, is no mean feat and although there were tired minds and tired bodies on display against the Terriers, our resilience and incredibly strong team spirit always offers hope that the next big win could be just around the corner.
Can our makeshift defence hold out for three more games? Can Amad summon one final burst of the magic he’s been sprinkling on this division since he joined us on loan, and can Joe Gelhardt, on the back of some encouraging recent performances, bring his loan spell to a close in a positive way by firing in the goals that might just make the difference?
Throughout the 2022/2023 season, this squad has delivered on a consistent basis, often defying their relative inexperience, playing without fear and showing why our club is moving forward once again.
If Tony Mowbray can steer us through the next three fixtures and into the end-of-season shootout, it would be the perfect riposte to those who claim he’s a dinosaur and an uninspiring journeyman who isn’t the right man for the future. Regardless of the outcome, Mowbray has done a fine job for this club, and that should be remembered.
On the other hand, this feels completely different to the kind of pressure everyone, players and coaches alike, was under as the club fought to get out of the third tier.
Personally, I don’t feel the same sense of desperation at this stage as I did a year ago, when the desire to escape League One was at its most overwhelming, tensions were running dangerously high and every game felt like do or die.
This is more a case of giving it everything we’ve got and if we do succeed, fabulous, and if we don’t, there are enough reasons to be optimistic for 2023/2024 and beyond. This has been a season of progression, of evolution, and of genuine excitement at what this group of players could achieve.
Yes, these games will be tricky and there’s no room for error, but that’s a challenge to be embraced, not a prospect to be feared.
Just go for it, lads.
Show us exactly why you’re part of the best Sunderland team in years and whatever you do, make sure there are no regrets when it’s all over. The fans who you’ve represented so proudly will back you as they’ve done all season, and your head coach knows exactly what you’re capable of.
We owe West Brom one after a dismal defeat at home, and everyone knows that you’ve got what it takes to turn over the Baggies on their own patch and set us on the way to a huge and season-defining final two games.