If you were to pick one current Sunderland player to make a prediction similar to Niall Quinn’s famously confident declaration after the 1998 playoff final (‘We know we’re the best football team in the division and next season we’ll prove it’) who would you choose?
Luke O’Nien? Lynden Gooch? Jack Clarke, perhaps? Maybe the discussion has already been had behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the Sky cameras, as the squad takes a well-earned break following a taxing 2022/2023 season.
He was at the centre of some of our most inspirational moments last season, so it’s easy to picture O’Nien leading the huddle, reiterating why the frustration of missing out should be bottled and why we need to be better next time around.
After all, he’s dealt with plenty of setbacks during his Sunderland career and has always responded exceptionally well, so standing strong after our playoff semi-final defeat probably wouldn’t have been too challenging.
In any case, even if the lads haven’t been roused before heading for the beach, I think we can be fairly confident that when the new season begins, they won’t find it too difficult to park their disappointment and ensure that a top six berth is the minimum achievement next season.
Following Tuesday night’s game, a steady stream of posts from the players began to appear on social media.
Of course, sharing apologetic messages is par for the course for the modern-day footballer after a tough loss, but this time, it just felt slightly different to the usual simpering and hollow sentiments.
The messages from the likes of Dennis Cirkin and Patrick Roberts hinted that they’re already thinking about 2023/2024, and how the club can continue on the upward curve that we’ve been on since the League One playoff final victory.
There’s a growing maturity about this Sunderland team that seems to belie their young average age, and it’s become increasingly more noticeable as the weeks and months have gone by.
Someone like Dan Neil, for example, often strikes me as an older head on young shoulders, and we mustn’t forget there’s a core of hard-bitten pros who’ll doubtless continue to guide their younger teammates.
O’Nien, Danny Batth, Gooch, Corry Evans and Roberts (a well-travelled player, despite still being relatively young) is a group with very strong leadership credentials, and assuming we can add a couple of wiser heads this summer, that core will grow stronger still.
After being the Wembley fall-guy in 1998, Michael Gray played like a man possessed the following season, and although no single player will fulfill such a role this time around, it just goes to show how an arm around the shoulder (in Gray’s case, from the no-nonsense Peter Reid) and the backing of your teammates can be absolutely essential.
With Tony Mowbray seemingly set to remain at the club, there ought to be some welcome continuity heading into the summer, and after the rapport he’s established with the players and the team spirit he’s helped to foster, it’s absolutely right that he should be allowed to continue.
One common argument is that the Championship will be ‘much tougher’ next season (something that’s probably been said for years, even before social media), as relegated teams adapt to the second tier and established teams strengthen, but that’s not something to fear.
The likes of Kristjaan Speakman and Stuart Harvey will know what needs to be fixed, and the players themselves will doubtless be aware that however good their efforts were during 2022/2023, they’ll be competing under greater expectations and with higher standards next time, and it’ll demand even more of them.
Do I see that as a problem? No.
The good thing is that the league will hold no surprises next season, and with so many of the squad not close to their peak, the potential remains exciting. Also, you get a sense that these players know how perfect an environment Sunderland is for them at this stage, and that’s something they aren’t likely to turn their backs on.
They might’ve fallen short in the end, but this feels like a completely new Sunderland and after a good rest over the summer, we should be very confident that the disappointment of Luton will have eased and there’ll be renewed optimism about what can be achieved during our second season at this level.