I had a peculiar sense of inner peace going into the final game of the season, knowing our play-off fate was very much in the hands of external influences.
We know better than most, being in pole position and in control of our own destiny often leads to Sunderland doing Sunderland things, i.e. bottling it.
Of course, as soon as the team announcement hit our Twitter feeds at 2pm, that uncharacteristic coolness evaporated, and the nerves set in. It was the case of the good Angel versus the bad.
The good; “Whatever happens today, we should be monumentally proud of this side that is merely in its development stage. Even being in the playoff conversation with one game to go is an achievement, especially given the circumstances. Injury crisis, being newly promoted, youngest squad in the league, etc., etc.”.
The bad; “What could have been if we had a fully fit squad? If we had just put the games against Huddersfield and Watford to bed, our status as a play-off outfit would be all but confirmed”
With Preston out of playoff contention, the emphasis was all on us to dig out a performance in front of a sell-out crowd at Deepdale, including six thousand Lads fans that made the trip across to Lancashire.
As Don Goodman kept reminding us “Preston aren’t here to roll over”. And they weren’t. Anthony Patterson was called into action on several occasions early on and Liam Delap arguably should have put the hosts one up.
Sunderland were tasked with weathering two Lancashire-based storms, luckily, the footballing blizzard was short-lived, and limited to just the first 10 minutes, the rain however, hailed down for most of the 90.
Thereafter, we looked crisp in possession, Dan Neil made some crucial interceptions, and Pierre Ekwah, once again, was pinging balls all over the park with aplomb, slotting Joe Gelhardt in for a golden chance that the goal-shy striker was unable to convert. A penalty shout fell on deaf ears as Bauer brought down Gelhardt.
Half-Time. Millwall 3-1 Blackburn. Middlesbrough 1-1 Coventry. Sunderland 7th.
How it stands at the break...#EFL | #SkyBetChampionship pic.twitter.com/9wQazbeLF2— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) May 8, 2023
Preston started the second like they had the first, with a fleeting spree of attacks that were comfortably dealt with by our makeshift backline, although Patterson was called upon to make a terrific save from, yep, you guessed it, a corner.
Pritchard on. Cirkin off. Game changed.
Bang! Pick that out. That man again, Amad Diallo with a beautifully taken strike. 1-0.
Millwall 3-2 Blackburn. Comeback back on!
Sunderland continued to press for a second, and low-and-behold Alex Prirchard’s intelligent strike makes it 2-0. As Sunderland fans celebrate, Millwall capitulate. 3-3 at The Den. Sunderland sit 6th. The dream is alive. Another well-worked move and Jack Clarke whips it into the far corner and the wizards are 3 up. Job done.
The roar from the away end only got louder as the news filtered through that Brereton Diaz had put Blackburn 4-3 up down at Millwall. Unless Preston staged a miraculous 5-minute comeback, the boys in red and white were on the cusp of another play-off campaign, just a year after that day at Wembley.
Full Time. Sunderland 3-0 Preston. Millwall 3-4 Blackburn. Boro 1-1 Coventry. We secure ourselves a showdown with Luton Town at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.
An absolutely immense performance that showcased why we are where we are.
Our attacking prowess and our “total football”.
This side has been everything we’ve wanted from a Sunderland team for years. No egos, no disrupters, just a canny group of lads, with bags of raw talent, who fight until the dying embers.
Whatever happens over these next two games, this squad has made me immeasurably proud, and with a brilliant recruitment model, and this “feel good” factor around the club, whether our Premier League aspirations are realised this year, or in the not-so-distant future, it is a truly exciting time to be a Sunderland fan.