In August 2019, I made the trip home from the Stadium of Light after Sunderland had started the season with a thoroughly underwhelming 1-1 draw against Oxford, and to say that game was from another era would be to downplay it somewhat.
Jack Ross, fresh from two crushing Wembley losses, was still in the dugout; we were still pinning our hopes on Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady to provide the creative spark, and there was genuine hope that Will Grigg, signed in a Netflix-chronicled panic transfer the previous January, would come good.
At the time, Sunderland AFC was a shell of a club, with a mix-and-match squad, no real recruitment strategy, an unpopular manager and owners, and a fan base bruised after a failed playoff campaign and haunted by the realisation that League One was a swamp of grisly proportions, into which we were in danger of sinking even deeper.
And then came Phil Parkinson. And Covid. And Danny Graham. And many, many more disheartening cock ups and embarrassments as the seasons passed by in a blur of fluctuating fortunes and promotion futility.
Fast forward to 2023 however, and the club, by any realistic metric, is barely recognisable.
Alex Neil started it by overseeing promotion to the Championship, which should always be acknowledged, and Tony Mowbray has continued it, aided and abetted by a boardroom that’s finally stable.
Of course, there’s a lot of work to do in order to bring the various off field departments up to scratch (not least the ticketing system, as illustrated on Wednesday), but on the pitch, this is a new Sunderland, driven by the fearlessness of youth, an impressive coaching setup, and a collective belief in the potential of the club and the desire to restore it to the top flight.
All you need to do to gauge the scale of the rebuild is to dig out a match programme from the 2019/2020 season and compare it to one from this season. The contrast is stark and the improvement in overall quality staggering.
McNulty, Lynch, Dobson > Ekwah, Neil, Hume. If that’s not progress, then there’s no such thing as progress.
One of the many things I adore about this squad is that they play without the scars of the past, and without fear of what the future might bring.
The likes of Jack Clarke, Patrick Roberts, Trai Hume, Amad, and Pierre Ekwah aren’t burdened by the failures and mismanagement that knocked the club over the edge, and it shows in the freewheeling brilliance of their play. After all, they weren’t here during the dark days, so what do they care?
To paraphrase the late Jock Stein, Sunderland jerseys don’t shrink to fit inferior players, and these lads have lived up to their responsibilities and then some. Indeed, it seems to be a key tenet of the club’s approach to recruitment- talent is one thing, but do they also have the character and the resilience to play for the club?
It’s this approach that’s given us a real identity this season, and has led us to within three games of the Premier League. Have all the pundits and journalists who’ve praised us done so out of pure sycophancy? I don’t think so.
The brilliance of our play has lit up the league and the fact that we’ve been showcased on Sky Sports so often tells its own story: Sunderland AFC is a club that people want to watch again.
Another thing to admire is the team’s way of dealing with injuries and setbacks, which seems to be based on the old mantra of ‘improvise, adapt, and overcome’.
Being stripped of your captain, a multitude of defenders and your most potent goalscorer might’ve represented a season-killing twist for many clubs, but what did we do when the likes of Corry Evans and Ross Stewart were ruled out?
There was no downing of tools, no moaning and no throwing up of arms in frustration.
The players stood tall, rode the bumps and the poor results, and emerged stronger for the experience. Nineteen points dropped at home is an issue, but for every Stadium of Light setback, there’s often been an impressive response on the road and our current nine-game unbeaten run wasn’t constructed accidentally, either.
If our ‘alternative’ style of play, honed and gradually perfected in the absence of Stewart is anything to go by, we’re going to be even more of a threat in the seasons to come as the players continue to develop.
Indeed, who would’ve thought that Mowbray, harshly pigeonholed as a ‘dinosaur’ in some quarters, would’ve overseen the development of such a thrilling style of play? He clearly believes in letting players express themselves, as long as defensive duties aren’t shirked, and the results have been plain to see.
Successive promotions would be a remarkable achievement, but would you put it past this team?
Even after the nadir of the 1-5 defeat at home to Stoke City, the season was never a write off and as Finlay Anderson wrote on Wednesday, the players are continuing to defy the doubters and the naysayers, and this campaign has still got two games left to run at the very least.
Yes, we benefited from a stroke of good fortune on the final day, as Millwall collapsed at home and we made sure of victory against Preston, but after enduring plenty of bad luck (not to mention a multitude of refereeing errors) during 2022/2023, it would be extremely harsh to claim that we weren’t due some kind of retribution.
There’s no more eloquent way of putting it: I love this squad.
I love the way they play football and the way they represent our club and the wider region, and regardless of what happens over the two games against Luton, I’ve rarely felt more excited and hopeful about the future, and that’s after twenty seven years of ups, downs, heartbreaks and triumph.