After a breathless 2-1 win in the Championship playoff semi-final first leg versus Luton, this young Sunderland side again showed why supporters are so proud of this group and their frankly staggering achievements on the pitch this season. All of this while playing exemplary, stylish football.
For many fans, this is the most complete, neat, purposeful and passionate football witnessed from the Black Cats for decades. There is an expectant atmosphere around the city, combined with a level of disbelief at being on the edge of the Premier League, after six years away from arguably the world’s top division.
Fifty years ago, football drama happened, albeit on a different stage and scale. Wearside was still celebrating the stunning F.A. Cup victory at Wembley, and the effect on the whole area was profound. Sunderland had beaten Manchester City, Arsenal and Leeds United in the most amazing fashion, playing uninhibited, flowing football; two of those teams finished in the top three of Division One in 1972-73.
A whole new generation of fans bonded with Sunderland AFC, levels of work productivity and happiness were up. As already noted on these pages, I was 18 years old when Sunderland won the FA Cup, so for me coming out of adolescence and bonding with the team in a special way are inextricably interlinked, so 1973 was a truly incredible year. I chose my football team, or it chose me, celebrated those times with close friends I am still in touch with, and even made the first steps in choosing a career.
Half a century in the past, manager Bob Stokoe got the pre-final psychology completely right, never interacting directly with opposition manager Don Revie, but intimidating and unsettling him and the Leeds team via the media. Stokoe’s inspiring and unique management meant that we won a major trophy, and it was a truly remarkable achievement.
In comparison now we have Tony Mowbray, a head coach who has bonded with his young Sunderland squad, understating the potential achievements of the team in the media, but who privately demands a free-flowing style of football we could only dream about a couple of years ago. Psychology is being utilised well by Mowbray, by at least publicly downplaying our chances of making it to the Premier League.
On the 5th of May 1973 there were periods of the game when we simply toyed with a dispirited Leeds United. Take a look back at sections of the second half and see how the lads kept possession of the ball, in an era of a long-ball playing style.
I am taking nothing away from the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime Wembley victory on the day by saying that this current Sunderland team plays more of a passing game, pulling teams apart while keeping the ball on the ground.
There were other important differences of course. The 1973 team were in 19th spot early in January, so left it too late to stand a realistic chance of promotion, but in 2023 we are in the Championship playoffs, without the distraction of a cup run. Also, the 1973 heroes did not have to cope with a constant, nagging injury list, despite playing so many games. That lack of availability of first teamers, especially strikers and centre-backs could have left the current young squad feeling disheartened, but instead this team is somehow galvanised.
When walking along the Thames away from Craven Cottage after the fine 1-1 draw in the FA Cup late in February, I spoke with fellow Sunderland fans who expressed a strong opinion that the team should not be promoted in 2023.
I understood where they were coming from, but I reckon that our owner and management team have been working on a cunning plan of recruitment which will be executed if we do happen to win the playoff final at Wembley on May 27th, when some of our injured players could be back in contention. I would argue that we are a bigger club than relegated Southampton or Leicester City who are likely to be in the Championship next season; both these teams prepared poorly for the current campaign.
Will there one day be a statue of Mowbray outside the Stadium of Light? Currently, I feel that outcome is unlikely, but time will tell. Even if our season ends at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night, he has been an absolute hero at Sunderland, as the man who inspires this young squad to play the exciting football that we have witnessed this season.