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Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg

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Fan Letters: “This Sunderland squad has played some of the most scintillating football I’ve ever seen!”

Thoughts on the evolution of our style of play, the achievement of making the playoffs, and how we’ve adapted during the 2022/2023 season are in the RR mailbox today! Got something to say?

Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

Sir Niall once made a promise that never quite materialised but this season, we’ve seen it and now we all fully understand what he meant by a ‘magic carpet ride’.

These players have produced some of the most scintillating entertaining football matches I’ve ever seen.

They’re the most inexperienced team in the Championship, as well as the youngest, the smallest and the most injury hit. They’ve played most of the season without a recognised striker, and recently without any recognised central defenders, but they’ve often produced better football than any other team in the division, including Burnley.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, and I’m optimistic because we always score which means Luton need to score three to win, this season will always have a place in the hearts of Sunderland fans.

My first Sunderland love was the 1964 promotion side, so I’m telling young fans of today that in sixty years time, they’ll remember Amad, Clarke, O’Nien in the way that I still hold dear the names of Hurley, Harvey, Monty and the rest, and they’ll be reliving Clarke’s goal against Reading or any of Diallo’s curlers the same way I still recall and exaggerate Johnny Crossan’s FA Cup goal at Old Trafford.

Thinking that our season would be over well before now, I booked a spring of following Bruce Springsteen around Europe and I was in the Paris La Defense Arena when we were playing Luton at the Stadium of Light.

When the concert started, we were one goal down but at the end, I heard the final score and as I entered the Metro, there was a busker singing ‘Wise Men Say’.

Serendipity or what?

Rob Doran

Ed’s Note [Phil]: Hi, Rob. Thanks for your letter!

I agree that some of the football we’ve played this season has been absolutely dazzling, and when you’ve got talents like Amad in the team, there’s always a great chance that something magical is likely to happen.

He’s been one of the players who’ve stepped up in the absence of the likes of Ross Stewart, and the way we’ve adapted to losing our orthodox strikers for much of the season has been superb.

I’m confident that we can finish the job on Tuesday night and I just hope we go down to Kenilworth Road, play with freedom, and book ourselves what would be a hard-earned second consecutive trip to Wembley.

Here’s hoping!

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

When Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016, the stars aligned for them.

Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea were in transition and even their only challengers, Tottenham Hotspur, went ‘full on Spurs’ at the end and finished third in a two horse race.

They finished on eighty one points, a total that nearly every other season before and since would’ve had them in third place, but everything came together, they took full advantage and it was called the greatest football achievement ever.

Sunderland making the playoffs after everything that’s gone against us this year is a miracle.

If we were to go up, playing the football we have and scoring over fifty league goals from midfielders and defenders with half a team of kids who’ve never kicked a ball at this level before, I think it would dwarf what Leicester did by a country mile.

Paul Robinson

Ed’s Note [Phil]: Hi, Paul. Thanks for getting in touch!

When we were hammered 1-5 by Stoke, I think a lot of people might’ve thought that the season was over and that we had little to play for during the remaining games, but the fact that we’ve lost once since then shows exactly how determined and resilient this squad is.

We did the business on the final day with the win over Preston, while Millwall collapsed at home to Blackburn, and there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that we’re fully worthy of a place in the playoffs, regardless of what fans of rival clubs might claim.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Deepdale Stadium Photo by Tim Markland/PA Images via Getty Images

Dear Roker Report,

In 2016, as Sunderland again struggled in the Premier League, an academy product made a rare breakthrough into the first team.

Lynden Gooch was diminutive, stocky and full of attitude. He’d spent his formative years between his home in California and Sunderland’s academy, with a gritty determination to make it as a professional footballer.

He had undoubted skill but it was his decision making that frustrated the fans.

All too often he would beat a player, then turn and beat the same player, then turn and beat the same player. He had an unerring ability to run himself into a dead end and lose the ball.

He was, however, the natural successor to Seb Larsson. Every team needs a player who can point and argue in the face of officials, and Gooch could give a masterclass in that.

As Sunderland plummeted through the leagues, Gooch experienced all of it, sometimes being a bright spark in dark times and on other occasions being symptomatic of the club’s descent.

The one moment that stood out was his winning goal in the final of the Papa John’s Trophy in 2021, and ending the club’s record of Wembley losses since 1973 may have proved to be a watershed moment in the club’s history.

Gooch’s fortunes didn’t appear to be rosy under Lee Johnson, and an exit in the January transfer window appeared to be best for both parties.

Despite being part of Johnson’s ‘leadership team’, he was heavily linked with a move to Swansea but when the transfer window closed, Gooch remained a Sunderland player.

Then came the Bolton game, after which Johnson was replaced by Alex Neil and Gooch became a flying wing back. As we climbed into the playoff places, Gooch tore down the right wing and delivered precise crosses for Ross Stewart to attack, and the rest is history.

He started the 2022/2023 season as our first choice right back but injury allowed a little-known Irish player to step up.

After an uncertain start, Trai Hume quickly made the right back berth his own and it was difficult to see a way back for Gooch, other than as an understudy.

However, his determination and versatility brought him back into the squad, and he slotted into the midfield, providing an experienced and stabilising influence for the young team around him.

Recently, it’s been the defensive crisis where he’s truly displayed his versatility. Imagine the conversations…

‘We need a captain, someone to set the example, someone to drive the team, who do we have?’

‘How about Lynden?’

That sounds reasonable, but the conversation after that, less so.

‘We need a left sided centre half to play in a back three, who do we have?’

‘How about Lynden?’

And yet, here we are.

With Preston dutifully despatched and the job against Luton half done, the diminutive winger who so often frustrated us in the Premier League is on the cusp of leading his boyhood club to Wembley and a potential return to the top level of English football.

Long live the CaliMackem!

Mike Stubbs

Ed’s Note [Phil]: Hi, Mike. Thanks for your letter.

Gooch has always been a curious player. As you say, there are times when he can drive people mad with his inconsistency, but on other occasions, he can be one of our key players, and his work rate and commitment have never been in doubt.

As someone who’s been there through the darkest days of the past six years, I think it would be even sweeter if he played a part in helping us to make a return to the Premier League, and he’s definitely been one of our leaders in recent weeks, as injuries have hit us hard.

Personally, I’m very glad he didn’t leave the club. He’s a valuable player for us.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images


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