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West Bromwich Albion v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - The Hawthorns

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Sunderland - All or Nothing!

If supporters of other teams ask for an explanation of why we are always near the top or bottom of the table, I have always shrugged it off saying ‘We are an all-or-nothing team’!

Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

It’s the end of the season, and going into the last game Sunderland once again find themselves in a match that could determine which league they are playing in next season - albeit via a shot at the play-offs. Approaching the end of season run-in, this is a situation that we repeated every year in League One, bar the one that was ended by PPG.

Before that, Sunderland were in an annual relegation battle for six successive seasons, and the season before that sequence - in 2012 - although we finished 13th under Martin O’Neill, it was not without early season relegation form that saw Steve Bruce sacked. It means you have to go back to 2010 and 2011, twelve years ago to find the last time that Sunderland had a true ‘midtable‘ season.

But they were the exception.

Before those two midtable finishes in the 2000s, starting from 2002, Sunderland played out eight successive seasons of flirting with relegation, relegation, flirting with promotion, actual promotion, relegation again, promotion again then more relegation battles.

Kevin Phillips of Sunderland Photo by Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Two safe seventh-place midtable finishes at the turn of the century? Supporters around at the time will need no reminding that Sunderland actually rode much higher than that for much of those two seasons - third in December 1999 and second in January 2001.

Delve further back into our history and the safe respectable midtable finish has largely eluded us over the last nearly fifty years, with only one in the 1990s - 1994 - but even that was after a relegation fight, The other seasons in that decade were mostly relegation fights and three promotion pushes under Peter Reid. In the 1980’s Sunderland had one midtable finish - 11th in the second tier in 1989 - in a season that pretty much mirrored our own ambitions at the start of this season, to consolidate after our promotion from the third tier last year.

Historically from the mid-1970’s, Sunderland have only had four seasons where they had midtable campaigns. Every other season they have been involved in campaigns where they were challenging at the top, or battling near or at the bottom of the table - regardless of the league they were in.

That is four midtable campaigns in 49 seasons of football. If supporters of other teams ask for an explanation of why we are always near the top or bottom of the table, I have always shrugged it off saying ‘We are an all-or-nothing team’.

It feels like an incredulous statistic and would back up why we feel like supporting Sunderland is an emotional rollercoaster, with great but distanced highs and a hell of a lot of lows. Because the team itself going long back over time has produced nothing but highs and lows with very little of the happy medium in between where we can all relax, breathe easy and enjoy what is in front of us.

Even this season, where it was widely acknowledged for much of it that it would be a year of consolidation after our promotion from league one, where there was not a great expectation for the team to be challenging for the play-offs, we find ourselves on the last league game of having a shout at the play-offs.

Could it be that this club, this team, after deciding that it was not going to be involved in a relegation battle was inevitably sucked into a promotion challenge as the season closed to an end because historically we end up at one end of the table or the other?

Well no. This year the answer is a simple one, and that is because we've got a good team - a bloody good team when everyone is fit. And not by accident either - recruitment pretty much defines where you finish in the league.

Last summer after our promotion from League One, Kristian Speakman and his recruitment team set about recruiting Aji Alese, Dan Ballard, Amad Diallo, Eduaord Michut, Jack Clarke, Abdoullah Ba and Patrick Roberts on an extended contract. There are others, but these are the players that have made important contributions this season and there isn't a single dud signing among them.

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

Applying this logic to explain the past, it makes more obvious why in some eras we would spend successive seasons battling relegation, such as the early 80s, and early 90s and 2010’s or why we had a yo-yo existence year on year in the 2000’s or were unable to punch our way out of League One for so long. The league positions mirrored the ambition of the board.

There have been attempts along the way to pull the club up by its metaphoric shorts, but either it wasn’t sustained or the wrong man was backed.

The recruitment in the summer of 2022 is the best recruitment I have seen since 1997 when we moved to the Stadium of Light and this could be finally the start of an era in which Sunderland make all the right decisions to push the club upwards and keep us there.

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


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