Ahead of the first game of 2022/2023 against Coventry back in July, I remember feeling plenty of nerves amid the sense of excitement and pride at being back in the Championship.
Following the playoff final victory over Wycombe, we’d gradually enhanced the squad but there were still some areas of weakness and plenty of questions about how competitive we could be, how the young players would adapt, and whether we’d be able to last the pace over a marathon season.
However, as we reflect on a season that ended at the playoff semi-final stage, having surpassed expectations to a staggering degree, how should we view the campaign as a whole? Does the failure to progress to Wembley cast a pall over our efforts or does it need to be put into context?
Personally, I can’t feel too downbeat about the prospect of another season of Championship football. Had you offered me the chance of being two games from the promised land when the season began, I would’ve probably laughed it off, but what’s happened since has been memorable.
In the first instance, there’s no doubt that we were one of the teams who added real value to the Championship last season. In contrast to the utter disgrace of 2017/2018, this was the kind of encouraging campaign that everyone had hoped for after four years out of the division.
Whereas our fellow promoted teams in Wigan and Rotherham were mired at the wrong end of the table for the entire campaign, with the Latics eventually dropping straight back down into League One, we were competitive from day one and seldom looked outmatched or overawed by any opponent.
Yes, there were games in which we failed to perform but on those occasions, we were often masters of our own downfall, usually through individual errors or poor game management.
There were very few games when you thought, ‘Christ, we look a little bit out of our depth here’, and our ability to respond from setbacks, such as the 1-5 hammering against Stoke, couldn’t be overlooked either.
The next point to consider is the overall profile of Sunderland’s squad and exactly how well a young group of players adapted to life at this level.
It’s important to stress that it wasn’t a totally inexperienced group, with the likes of Lynden Gooch, Danny Batth, Luke O’Nien, Patrick Roberts, and Corry Evans regularly bringing their leadership credentials to the fore, but the club’s decision to invest so heavily in youth was notable and by and large, it was successful.
Anthony Patterson has continued to make a hugely positive impression in goal, Trai Hume, Aji Alese and Dan Ballard looked like imposing additions to our defence, and the likes of Jack Clarke, Dan Neil and Amad were simply dazzling to watch at times.
Throw the burgeoning talents of Pierre Ekwah and Abdoullah Ba into the mix, and it’s fair to say that this is very much a team for both the present and the future. From the somewhat pessimistic pre-season undertones of ‘only finishing fifth in League One’, perhaps the compliments will be more forthcoming this time.
In terms of the football we played last season, the overall standard was up there with any Sunderland team you could name, and many of the goals we scored were of the highest quality.
From Jack Clarke’s strikes against Reading and Bristol City to Dennis Cirkin finishing off a stunning team move against West Brom, not to mention the litany of world class contributions from Amad, mundane goals simply weren’t on the agenda and it’s no wonder that we became the darlings of Sky Sports as the season unfolded.
It would also be remiss to reflect on the season without considering the situation in the dugout, and when Alex Neil walked out on the morning of the home game against Norwich, there were plenty of concerns about who would replace him and exactly how effective they’d be, but we needn’t have worried.
On Wednesday morning, rumours were circulating that his position might be at risk, but the fact that there’s such a groundswell of support for Tony Mowbray to remain at the club tells a story in itself.
He’s overseen the development of an exciting and raw squad into one of the most potent teams we’ve had in many a year, and perhaps even more importantly, he’s instilled a set of values in the players that was long overdue. There’s a work ethic and a desire to improve that runs right through the squad, and Mowbray has played no small part in creating an environment where talent can thrive.
To my mind, it would be an incredibly harsh move to replace him at this stage but on the other hand, there’s clearly a plan in place and exterior noise doesn’t seem likely to knock the club’s hierarchy off course. They’ve already demonstrated their willingness to make unpopular if necessary calls, and they’ve certainly got enough credit in the bank to do so again.
The praise for Mowbray and the players must be tempered by the fact that there have been plenty of frustrating performances and results along the way. Our home form was average at best and whoever is in charge next season, an upturn in form on Wearside is a must.
Is the top two a realistic goal for next season? The playoffs certainly are, and it’ll mean grinding out games when necessary, something we often, and perhaps understandably, failed to do.
A handful of quality additions are needed this summer and the hard work needs to continue every day until the new season kicks off, but fundamentally, it feels as though we’re ahead of schedule by a decent margin.
Yes, the Championship will be a fiercely competitive division again next season, but there’ll be nothing to fear and if we can enjoy another fruitful summer in the transfer market, the frustration of falling short in our promotion push could be eased fairly quickly.