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Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg

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After the excitement of 2022/2023, Sunderland can’t afford to get complacent next time around

After an unexpected top six finish last season, the players’ mentality will be tested again when the new season begins, and they’ll need to up their game accordingly, writes Phil West

Photo by Alex Dodd - CameraSport via Getty Images

One of the things that undoubtedly propelled Sunderland to a top six finish during 2022/2023 was the element of surprise as a newly promoted team and the freedom that accompanied it.

If nobody quite knew what to expect as we transitioned from Alex Neil’s effective and no-nonsense pragmatism to Tony Mowbray’s more expansive style of play, they certainly did by the time the curtain fell.

On our day, we’d take the game to anyone, play without any inhibitions and it led to some thrilling performances and memorable results. It was a combination of the fearlessness of youth and the skill to back it up, and it was incredibly exciting to watch.

West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

However, our achievement, as notable as it was, must be parked fairly quickly as everyone recharges and begins to gear themselves up for the next chapter.

The 2023/2024 Championship is likely to have a unique, almost retro Premier League-style vibe, with plenty of historic and well-resourced clubs- ourselves among them- vying for those three coveted promotion slots.

Nineteen of the twenty four clubs once occupied a place in the top flight, and it’s sure to make for a highly competitive division, with big games everywhere you look and plenty of interest from Sky Sports. Indeed, all it would take is a highlights programme introduced by U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ to complete the picture, but enough of the nostalgia for a moment.

Regardless of what comes next, one thing that’s absolutely certain is the prospect of another hard-fought campaign shouldn’t hold any fear for us as supporters.

After all, we didn’t battle for four long years to escape League One only to lose our nerve when we made it into the second tier, and it should be seen as something to be relished.

If we’re willing to embrace the challenge, it’s imperative that Sunderland’s players do, as well. After all, there’s a very strong connection between the Lads and the supporters, and it’ll be invaluable once again as we go through the usual ups and downs.

Kristjaan Speakman’s latest interview contained plenty of interesting talking points, including praise for Mowbray that might just ease fears about his future, but it was his reference to Sunderland ‘competing at the top of the league’ next season that was perhaps the most eye catching.

Sunderland v Luton Town - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you’re of the view that the club needs to ‘show more ambition’, it might’ve been welcome, although actions in the transfer market and on the pitch- not Speakman’s words- will be the ultimate barometer.

It wasn’t an outlandish or unrealistic statement; more of an acknowledgement that everyone will be stepping up, and that we can’t run the risk of stagnating.

Although it’s fair to say that trips to Southampton, Leeds, Norwich and Blackburn will never be as soul destroying as tramping grimly to the likes of Accrington, Rochdale and AFC Wimbledon, it’s also right that we aim for a top flight return- not least because there are certainly six or seven members of our squad who undoubtedly have the potential to make an impact in the Premier League.

There’s a mindset at the club nowadays that rewards hard work, puts a very high premium on the right values and ethics, and acknowledges that playing for Sunderland isn’t to be taken lightly. Every player bought into it and it played a major role in what we achieved last season.

Retaining that mindset, and adding a touch more ruthlessness and composure under pressure, is going to be key for 2023/2024.

With a season of second tier football under their belts, the players should be wiser, more mature and more attuned to how games must be managed at this level- something that’ll hopefully result in a stronger home record, which was arguably the biggest frustration of our Championship return.

On the other hand, if they’re seeking inspiration, they should look to our class of 1998/1999 as a shining example of how a near miss in a showpiece game can lead to something even greater.

Following the playoff disappointment of 1997/1998, many of Sunderland’s players elevated their form to a new level the following season.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

Michael Gray was an absolute force of nature at left back, Allan Johnston took his game to new heights, and our ‘Fab Four’ of Quinn, Phillips, Dichio and Bridges all stepped up and delivered. The pain of missing out on promotion clearly fuelled their inner fire, and although the disappointment wasn’t as raw this time, how we respond could be similar.

If the likes of Jack Clarke, Dan Neil, Patrick Roberts, and Trai Hume can continue on an upward curve (a realistic probability, given their age and undoubted quality) they won’t have any problems replicating, or maybe even surpassing, the impact they made last time out.

The slightly sour ending aside, last season was memorable, enjoyable, and refreshing.

The players got a taste of what it’s like to represent a club that’s moving forward again, and the fans came along for the ride. The foundations are strong, there’s momentum behind us, and if Speakman’s statement is anything to go by, complacency, arguably the biggest potential hazard, won’t be creeping in.

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