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Barnesy’s Blog: Did anyone foresee Sunderland experiencing such a season?

In his latest Roker Report blog, BBC Newcastle’s Nick Barnes offers his thoughts on how the 2022/2023 season has unfolded, and why the future on Wearside is looking bright!

A month or so ago, I booked a weekend in London for myself and my fiancée Joanne. What a treat for the lucky lady who only weeks previously had said ‘yes’!

The weekend involves travelling down on Saturday May 27th with a view to travelling back on the evening of the 29th with the possibility that Carlisle United may be in the League Two playoff final at Wembley. It hadn’t even crossed my mind on booking that, actually, Wembley may be Sunderland’s destination on the 27th too!

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Photo by Steven Paston/PA Images via Getty Images

Sunderland are sleepwalking (literally, in Luke O’Nien’s case) into the playoffs.

It’s remarkable and it’s invigorating. It’s bloody amazing, actually, and it’s the season that keeps on giving.

Breathtaking goals. Mesmerising football. Highs. Lows. In fact, it’s had everything a football fan (and commentator) could possibly want from a season and it still potentially has much more to offer!

The playwright Alan Bennett coined the phrase ‘Keeping on keeping on’ and now this team of young players, in fact the youngest starting eleven (and possibly smallest) in the Championship could emulate another Bennett title, ‘The History Boys’.

Gary Bennett has swooned and howled at some of the goals this season, and Dennis Cirkin’s against West Bromwich Albion was just the latest.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Hawthorns Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

Sadly, Jewison Bennette won’t be able to bookend his and Sunderland’s season at home to Watford with another late goal, but don’t rule out one of his teammates scoring in the last ten minutes, as Sunderland have done eighteen times this season just to keep us dangling to the end.

Did anyone foresee such a season? I daresay someone will claim they did but I think the majority of us envisaged a long season working hard to stay above the bottom three or possibly toiling in mid-table.

The hammer blow of fate took away Ross Stewart, not once but twice, and then Ellis Simms and Corry Evans.

Shorn of recognised strikers, Sunderland have scored in all but seven league games this season and in every game bar one since November 5th against Cardiff City. They may reach the play-off final or they may not. They may not reach the semis and there’ll be a clarion cry of ‘why didn’t we sign a striker in January ?’ Hindsight.

A perfect storm it seems, when it came to the bid to try and sign a striker in the January window. Knocked back by several targets and then the blow of losing Stewart at Fulham having lost Simms at the turn of the year.

I do have some sympathy with the club as with the best will in the world, nobody could’ve foreseen such bad luck. Joffy Gelhardt has been singled out for unjustifiable criticism despite running his socks off for the club and we should be revelling in what this team has achieved despite the adversities. It really has kept on keeping on.

Sunderland v Huddersfield Town - Sky Bet Championship - Stadium of Light Photo by Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images

I’ve heard people talk about the Peter Reid years as being the last time the football was as enjoyable and it’s hard to disagree.

Of course, over the ensuing couple of decades there have been standout matches, standout moments and standout occasions, but that was probably the last time the football was as enjoyable on a consistent match to match basis.

At that time, the club was on the up after promotion in 1999 and two seventh-place finishes were the icing on the cake. However, Sunderland being Sunderland, it inevitably crumbled and even though the ten years in the Premier League from 2007 to 2017 were peppered with end of season dramas, there were arguably no standout seasons which have been as absorbing and fantastical as this.

For this has been a fantastical season with characters drawn from ‘Roy of the Rovers’, and at its head is perhaps the most fantastical of all, Tony Mowbray.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Eyebrows were doubtless raised when Alex Neil left and Mowbray was appointed but within weeks, his engaging manner and results were reeling us in.

Of course, he won’t have won everyone over but the majority can see what an outstanding job he’s done in trying circumstances. It seems I’m doing what Mowbray didn’t want to do over Dan Neil: eulogise, but he and I can’t help it, because this season deserves eulogy whatever its outcome.

The EFL’s glaring omission of a Sunderland goal in their end of season awards is a pill that can be swallowed because we don’t need the affirmation of anyone else that this football team and this football club are on the way back.

What a journey this season has been and the journey ahead promises to be as colourful and fantastic. This isn’t a football club on the verge of an unscheduled disassembly: it’s a football club on the verge of building a rocket to Venus!

Mark my words, and apologies to Alan Bennett!

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