It’s been another week of twists and turns at the Stadium of Light, and I’m sure that before the Birmingham game, we’d have happily settled for seven points from the fixtures at home to the Blues and Huddersfield, and away at West Brom.
If we’d predicted how those points would fall – overlooking our indifferent home record – most would have said wins in the two fixtures at the Stadium, and a point at the Hawthorns.
As it turned out, the win at West Brom yesterday made those seven points even more valuable, by virtue of the fact we prevented West Brom adding to their tally – and, together with results in midweek and at the weekend, leaves us in a playoff position. However, with West Brom and Blackburn having games in hand, we’re not guaranteed to be in the top six by the time we kick off against Watford on Saturday.
The run-up to the game had been marred a little by the news of Danny Batth’s season-ending injury, to add to – take a deep breath – Corry Evans, Ross Stewart, Dan Ballard, Elliot Embleton, Jewison Bennette, Niall Huggins and Aji Alese – in the list of players who’ve missed large chunks of the season and we won’t see again until next term.
The fact that we had not only the ability but the mental strength to go away to a team like West Brom and play without any recognised centre-backs or out-and-out centre-forwards and come away with a win is remarkable. It is a testament to the job Tony Mowbray, Kristjaan Speakman, Stuart Harvey and others have done. (You also wonder where we’d been right now if Alex Neil had stayed – for me, I don’t think we’d be as close to the playoffs, but who knows?)
We can look back and compare various points in history with where we are now, however, the job that’s been done since first Speakman and then Kyril Louis Dreyfus arrived at the club has been nothing short of miraculous – as, with consideration to the injuries we’ve had, has been the job Tony Mowbray’s done, too.
Yes, it’s not over yet, and yes, mistakes have been made along the way, but overall it’s an incredible transition since December 2020, and one that will surely have Premier League clubs in need of a sporting director looking closely at the work Speakman has done.
This time last year, we were desperate to get into the playoffs and get up – this season, it’s far more relaxed. No one genuinely expected a playoff push, and if it comes along, it’ll be a thrilling final chapter to the story of an already incredibly impressive season.
We can bemoan the injuries, the lack of striking reinforcements and wonder ‘what if’. But the flip side of the injuries has been the game time the likes of Trai Hume, Abdoullah Ba, Aji Alese, Eduoard Michut, Pierre Ekwah – even Amad – have gotten this season. And they’ve absolutely relished the opportunity. They’re playing with no fear, they aren’t weighed down by the past, their writing their own futures, and it’s genuinely exciting to see it develop in front of our eyes.
Take Joe Gelhardt, for example. He was absolutely superb yesterday, following up a good performance in midweek with an even better one at the Hawthorns. Yesterday, he was doing everything we need him to do – he was coming deep, holding the ball up, linking play, and showing a determination and robustness that belied his years.
He couldn’t put in that type of performance ten weeks ago, but now he can – the difference in his play was extraordinary, and he’ll go back to Leeds a better player; a player, in fact, I’d love to see us get permanently in the summer – and a few weeks ago, I couldn’t have imagined writing that, based on what we’d seen up to that point.
Trai Hume’s another one who looks right at home in the championship and is now a guaranteed starter. You watch Hume play and he’s a Sunderland captain in the making – he’s got everything you need and has stepped up so, so well. If injuries hadn’t occurred, he’d likely have spent the majority of the season on the bench.
The lack of genuine strikers has also forced the team to figure out other ways of scoring, and when we do get strikers back in the team, that could be incredibly valuable.
After the game yesterday, Tony Mowbray was still very coy about the possibility of going up, and rightly so – he’s played down our chances all season, and with good reason. He’s managed the group incredibly well, and deep down, he’d likely prefer at least one more season at Championship level with this squad, plus a few quality additions, to really get this team firing consistently.
But we cannot pick and choose when to get promoted, and if the opportunity comes along this season, you certainly wouldn’t put it past the players to achieve it.
The football we play is magnificent, and as we showed yesterday, the attitude, mental strength and desire are equally good – if not better. It was typified by Luke O’Nien, but every single player showed a desire and commitment that I think’s unparalleled in our modern history.
Who knows where that can take us?
We’ve defied the odds all season, who’s to say we can’t continue to do so?
As yesterday’s performance showed, this is a team you underestimate at your peril.