What a season this has been for Sunderland AFC. When reflecting on it, there are a number of words that come to mind, but the big one for me is bravery.
As well as sticking to the philosophy, the plan, and the method, the club has made a number of aggressive and brave decisions since that day at Wembley last May. Each of those decisions has contributed to a thrilling season, which isn’t over yet, with just two games to go.
We finally escaped League One with a relatively new owner, a relatively recently appointed director of football, and a very recently appointed head coach.
The achievement of the squad and coaches in sneaking up last season should not be understated, but to appreciate the yet-to-be-concluded achievements of this season, we need to consider where we were in the spring of 2022.
That squad was imperfect and inexperienced, and the fanbase was hopeful but fearful of another failed attempt at promotion.
After promotion, it was clear that there was talent in the squad, but where was the glue to keep the core of young players together through what we expected would be a grind of a season at a level above? A level which most of the squad had little or no experience of.
The easy thing to do would be to add half a dozen experienced, battle-hardened journeyman Championship players into the mix, to rely on the established methods using the same old names. That was what the talking heads on TV and radio said must be done; they scoffed at our signings last summer.
Yet, the club was brave, incredibly brave, and did not recruit any players with Championship experience last season, bar Dan Ballard, who had just one season at that level under his belt. With so much at stake after promotion and the scars of the previous six seasons still felt, that decision took some balls.
Instead of adding more Corry Evans’s and Danny Batth’s, trust was placed in those two, plus Alex Pritchard, Lynden Gooch, and Luke O’Nien, to be the experienced core of a young squad.
To a man, the existing experienced players, all of whom were recruited for League One, have been magnificent.
To place trust in Jack Clarke, who showed talent only in patches in League One, and in Dan Neil, who faded physically and mentally in his first season, to be the main men, was brave but inspired.
Each of those players has played almost every minute that they have been available and maintained a level of performance and consistency that we could only pray for.
It was clearly the development plan for them, and it worked.
Think Anthony Patterson this time last year, with only a handful of games under his belt. Twenty-one years old and clearly our number one for the season.
The brave thing to do would be to add an old hand in his mid-30s who could step in whenever Patterson’s form dipped. Being a keeper is such a pressure position; every mistake is costly, all eyes are on you, the stakes are so high. Patterson has made mistakes, but the club has backed him - bravery from the club and from that young man. I reckon that he has gained three years of development this season and is way ahead of where a keeper of his age would be without the brave decision to support him.
Contracts have also been a big story this year.
Alex Neil walking out on the biggest club he will ever manage started things off. There was talk of a contract offer; maybe it was made, maybe it wasn’t, but football is a business, and Neil went to Stoke, probably for a good few quid more than he could get here.
In days of old, we would have bettered that offer and kept him. But that would have been on his terms, not the club’s - that would have been the easy thing to do. The brave thing was to make the offer and stick to your guns - if he accepts it, then that is fine - if not, then have a plan to recruit someone who wanted to be here.
That would not have happened if the bravery was absent, and maybe the season would have been different. We will never know.
Likewise, the contract for Ross Stewart remains unsigned.
It would have been easy to chuck the money at his agent and get him signed up. The brave thing was to stay calm and see how matters developed. He may still not sign that contract, but the bravery of the decision to negotiate on our terms and to trust the squad above the individual is what stands out. We need to get used to that change in philosophy.
The club’s history is marked by contracts being given out too easily, too early.
We then need to think about the style of play. When you think Championship, you think toughness, physicality, pace, and strength to negotiate a grinding 46-game season.
We have done things differently, bravely passing our way through and around teams, not taking the easy way, not going route one. We have shown bravery in the physical challenges and have been brave on the ball. You only get that from young players who have no concept of fear. It has been great to watch.
The January transfer window also showed that the club had faith in the young players. It would have been easy to add a couple of old heads. It would have been easy to recruit a target man from League One as a stopgap. But no, they bravely stuck to their principles and showed belief in the squad, despite pressure from outside. That took some guts.
As the old saying goes, fortune favors the brave. Well, the club, the manager, and the team have shown immense bravery all season. With a little bit of luck, we could find ourselves in the Premier League in a little over a month’s time. What a story that would be.