After forty-five games, countless brilliant goals, some thrilling wins, and frustrating losses, all roads lead to Deepdale for Sunderland’s final league game of the 2022/2023 season.
It’s one more game for this exciting group of players to give us an exhibition of why they’re responsible for the brightest new dawn on Wearside since 2006/2007, and one more opportunity for the likes of Amad to possibly give his adoring fans a final piece of brilliance before he returns to Manchester United.
Saturday’s gutsy fightback against Watford, capped by another superb goal from Patrick Roberts, might not have resulted in the victory we all craved, but it did show that even at the end of a long and draining season, the players haven’t given up on the idea of extending it for another couple of weeks.
Indeed, such has been the exciting and largely enjoyable nature of the campaign, it barely feels like five minutes since we were preparing for the visit of Coventry to the Stadium of Light. The games have gone by in a flash, and the memorable moments have been plenty, a welcome change from the League One years where seasons seemed to last for an eternity.
Much has changed since last July, but one thing that’s remained constant is the feeling of progress, growth, and most importantly, genuine optimism for the future.
Yes, there have been setbacks, disappointing results, and upheaval (with another defeat for Stoke on Saturday pouring yet more cold water on Alex Neil’s decision to abandon ship for the Potteries), but Tony Mowbray, a shrewd, sharp, and hugely experienced coach, has expedited this team’s development and guided them through the league impressively.
He has faith in his players, he trusts them, and he’s instilled the right values in them too. He’s also an affable and likable man, for whom the prestige of managing Sunderland has rarely seemed like anything other than a joy, even after a career that’s seen him manage the likes of Celtic and his hometown club in Middlesbrough.
Football-wise, we’ve often been a joy to watch this season, with interplay of the highest quality and creative flair in abundance, topped with some of the best goals scored by a Sunderland team for many a year.
Of course, it hasn’t been perfect, with our home form an issue that needs to be addressed for 2023/2024, but as Mowbray himself has rightly said for months, the nucleus of a very exciting team is already in place.
Following Saturday’s draw against Watford, the players took the traditional “lap of appreciation” around the Stadium of Light pitch, soaking up the applause and the cheers from the fans for whom they’ve delivered so often this season.
Not only was it fully deserved, it somehow felt even more meaningful after the effort these lads have put in.
Sunderland sides of the not-too-distant past would’ve been loath to partake in the traditional end-of-season procession after regularly falling short of expectations, but this group is different.
They’re on the leading edge of something we can all get behind: faith in youth and the creation of an environment in which talent will be nurtured rather than stifled. Few players have appeared overawed by the challenge of playing for us, and many have risen to the occasion magnificently.
From Jack Clarke, whose evolution from a talented if somewhat erratic winger into a deadly all-round threat has been notable, to Luke O’Nien, who’s played in a multitude of positions when needed, this truly is a Sunderland team to admire.
They work hard, they apply themselves, and they represent the club and the city with pride. For these lads, it’s the chance to play football in front of capacity crowds that drives them, not the idea of Sunderland being an easy payday for those who simply don’t put the effort in.
Also, the crowning of Danny Batth as supporters’ player of the year was fully deserved for a player who dropped down a division, embraced the challenge, and now embodies the new standards expected for those who wear the red and white shirt. In a team filled with young talents, Batth is the kind of warhorse whose value can’t be overstated.
Regardless of whether the cards fall in our favour during the next seven days, this season has been hugely positive and we can head into the summer in good spirits.
There are issues to solve and weaknesses to address, but trust should’ve been earned and patience should be afforded to those in the boardroom. Next season, expectations will be raised and rightly so, but whether it’s Championship football or the bonus of a playoff run, it’s a very exciting time to be a Sunderland supporter.