For long periods of Sunderland’s recent history, we’ve been in a destructive loop of short-term thinking and jumbled spending, seemingly lurching from one crisis to the next.
A damaging cycle of appointing a new manager and attempting to implement a structure whether it suited them or not, only to rip it all up at the first sign of trouble and start over again, not only left the supporters feeling weary but put the club in extreme peril, and it’s only now that we’re starting to see a fuller recovery.
However, 2021/2022 signalled a new era, and with a more structured approach starting to take hold, one of the most important steps on the journey was completed exactly one year ago today.
It may not seem that long ago yet, but victory over Wycombe Wanderers in the League One playoff final was a crucial stage in our renaissance. Over time, it’ll hopefully be viewed as a major turning point on the way to some form of lasting success.
The season didn’t always run smoothly, and there was still to be a managerial change, but once Alex Neil was named as Lee Johnson’s successor as head coach, the transitional period was minimal.
The heavy defeats that had been cropping up were quickly eliminated, and a series of late winners took the Lads into the playoffs in a good frame of mind.
The pressure was still on- the club had already been in the division for too long and patience had all but ran out- but we were moving forward with momentum and having overcome Sheffield Wednesday in the semi finals, we set off for London feeling quietly confident.
Backed by around 46,500 fans, there was a feeling that this was Sunderland’s time.
Matches against Wycombe hadn’t always gone to plan, but Neil had instilled a degree of grit amongst his players and had been able to block out some of the noise around the game to ensure they would focus on the job in hand.
The lads handled the occasion brilliantly and after Elliot Embleton’s early opener, we dominated.
His driving run and shot caught David Stockdale out and sent the large army of supporters into raptures. An anticipated bombardment from The Chairboys then failed to materialise and on the occasions they did threaten, the lads were solid.
One misjudgement from Bailey Wright did lead to Anthony Patterson having to make a great stop at the feet of Sam Vokes, but there were few complaints about the Aussie, who’d been ill beforehand and travelled in a helicopter so he didn’t pass on any germs to his teammates.
Wright’s determination showed the levels within the squad.
Patrick Roberts and Alex Pritchard both had stormers, with the latter feeding Ross Stewart ahead of the crucial second goal.
Sunderland’s top scorer stroked the ball into the net to spark scenes of joy and relief, and with Luke O’Nien celebrating tackles as if they were goals, we weren’t going to let things slip from here.
The way in which Neil later departed left a bitter taste in the mouth but by then, he’d already helped Sunderland take the vital stride out of the third tier.
A year on, we can look back fondly on what was undoubtedly his best day with the club, which was a continuation of our incremental improvement.
The 2020/2021 season had seen the Wembley hoodoo broken by winning the EFL Trophy, and this time it was all the sweeter for taking place in front of a packed out Wearside end who now knew that we were on our way back.
Saturday 21 May 2022
Sky Bet League One playoff final
Sunderland 2 (Embleton 12’, Stewart 79’)
Wycombe Wanderers 0
Sunderland: Patterson, Gooch, Wright; Batth, Cirkin, Roberts; Evans, O’Nien, Pritchard (Doyle 81’); Embleton (Clarke 61’), Stewart (Broadhead 88’)
Subs Not Used: Hoffmann, Matete, D. Neil, McGeady