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Luton Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Play Off - Semi Final - Second Leg - Kenilworth Road

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2022/2023 has proven that Sunderland AFC are on their way back!

The Lads may have fallen short in their hunt for consecutive promotions, but as Finlay Anderson writes, it’s been a season that kept delivering, and gives real hope for the future.

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Well, where on Earth do we start?

After nine utterly remarkable months of Championship football, it’s all over.

Sunderland gave absolutely everything across fifty two matches this campaign – more than anything we could’ve wished for, but ultimately slipped at the final hurdle.

This time, it was just one step too far for a group of players that have captured the imagination this campaign.

Luton Town v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Luton’s physicality and intense press proved to be the decisive factors across both legs. All three goals came from dead ball situations, with two being rather simple tap ins and the other a thunderbolt header.

In a season where we’ve been forced to develop our own way of playing football, this was not our night, but that’s okay.

Somehow, we made our way into the playoffs after a season of hideous injury difficulties and during our first campaign back in the second tier.

It was one that began with Alex Neil in charge before the baton was passed on to Tony Mowbray, and from that point on, we went from strength to strength.

Luton Town v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

From that Reading goal to the late leveller from Jewison Bennette at Watford; from the remarkable first half against Burnley in October to Amad netting brilliant goals on a regular basis, to a superb day by the Thames against Fulham, to every single commanding away performance (and all the nervy and disappointing ones), and eventually to the show of love that this club has once again.

The list could go on and on, and the memories that this group of players have made for many supporters is beyond belief, and it’s altered what I’ve come to expect from Sunderland after years of heartbreak.

For so long, it hadn’t felt like this.

There had often been a lack of a buzz for a home match, a dreaded feeling for a tough away day, or the constant annoyance and frustration that player X didn’t play that pass or player Y had given the ball away time and time again.

Instead, there’s a love for the club once again. The Stadium of Light is being packed to the rafters on a regular basis, the fans are staying onside all of the time and there’s never been such a demand for away tickets as there has been this season.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

When times have got tough this campaign, the fans have stood strong and even after this night of all nights, they were right there beside the players.

‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ were the cries from those at Kenilworth Road, whilst from those back at home, there was a sense of utter pride.

Sunderland hasn’t felt this way for a long time, and although there may be no Amad, Gelhardt or Michut next season, this team will still be here, with their core intact and with a sea of Wearsiders behind them.

This gutting experience is only going to make them stronger.

After all, it’s a group largely made up of youngsters who’ve rarely experienced nights like Tuesday, and the effect it has.

Luton Town v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Play Off - Semi Final - Second Leg - Kenilworth Road Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Within days, the sadness and slight tinge of devastation will fade into a sense of pride for the club and the city.

Look back to where we were this time last season, and after our last season in the Championship, and reflect, because this campaign has been something else.

Things may change in the summer, from personnel to backroom staff, but when the fixtures are released. when pre-season kicks off and then come August when the new season starts, it’ll be a team that’ll go again.

This is not the end of anything. This is just the beginning.

On This Day (9 June 2007): Midfielder turns down Sunderland return – and heads to Bolton instead


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