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Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship

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The cards truly fell Sunderland’s way on Monday, and now it’s onwards to the playoffs!

After a crazy final day of the Championship season, we upheld our end of the bargain and with results elsewhere favouring us, we’ve secured a place in the end-of-season shootout!

Photo by Dave Howarth - CameraSport via Getty Images

So, how about two, and possibly three more games of this mad, thrilling 2022/2023 Championship season? How about another raucous and blood-stirring evening at the Stadium of Light, followed by a trip to Kenilworth Road and then the potential reward of another trip to Wembley?

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Deepdale Stadium Photo by Tim Markland/PA Images via Getty Images

It’s all up for grabs after a suitably enthralling and nerve-shredding final day of the season, but the upshot is that Sunderland, for all of our injury problems, makeshift solutions and seemingly long odds, will be in the mix.

We’re now three games away from a possible return to the promised land and all of the riches, prestige and excitement that would bring. This has come after a season filled with ups, downs, encouragement, frustration, and above all else, sheer team spirit and will to win.

The equation was simple on Monday: we had to win and other results needed to fall our way, but when Millwall lead 3-1 against Blackburn at half time and we couldn’t make the breakthrough against Preston, it was starting to feel like a long shot, and that the season would end on what would’ve felt like a slightly bitter note.

And then, as we’ve done so often this season, we turned it around to exceptional effect in the second half.

For so long, we’ve spoken of this team never giving up and never acknowledging lost causes, and that was the case again as we roared back to end the regular season on a high.

First, Amad, as he’s done so often, opened the scoring with another goal of ridiculous quality, before Alex Pritchard and Jack Clarke sealed the victory with two superb goals of their own. We needed to uphold our end of the bargain and despite the nerves and the high stakes, we were doing exactly that.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Deepdale Stadium Photo by Tim Markland/PA Images via Getty Images

At the same time, down at The Den, Rovers were mounting a stunning, against-the-odds comeback and by the time they made it 4-3 to seal the deal for good, we were already starting to think of Luton and how we’ll tackle the challenge they’ll pose.

After forty six games and a gruelling schedule filled with plenty of setbacks, this remarkable story still has some more paragraphs to be written.

Critics have often branded Tony Mowbray as being ‘downbeat’ and unwilling to embrace the challenge when it came to our playoff hopes, but it was clearly his way of taking the pressure off the players, and it’s worked absolutely emphatically.

It’s always difficult to highlight turning points of any season, but that 1-5 home defeat at the hands of Stoke City seems to have represented a watershed moment for our season.

As the inquests were carried out and the questions flew, the main one was, could we really have called ourselves potential top six material after such a dreadful result?

We’ve lost a a single game since, and despite some frustratingly dropped points at home, we’ve kept ourselves among the playoff chasers and thanks to some superb results away from home, we can now gear ourselves up for the playoffs as a newly-promoted side.

Never in recent years have I felt so passionately about a Sunderland team as I do about this group.

They’ve got resilience, skill, pride, commitment and passion in abundance, and with the ship being steered expertly by Mowbray, what’s been a promising season is now shaping up to be an unforgettable one.

Make no mistake: Mowbray deserves huge credit and his players do, too, not least for the way they’ve honed a style of football that doesn’t rely on the presence of Ross Stewart, but is instead dependant on sharp thinking, spatial awareness, and immensely high skill levels.

Preston North End v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

From Anthony Patterson to Luke O’Nien; from Pierre Ekwah to Amad, this is a group to be proud of and who’ve shown that putting faith in the fearlessness of youth can yield rewards. They’re capable of playing sublime football and have added true quality to this league, whereas the likes of Wigan have sunk without a trace.

With things set to reach a crescendo as the week unfolds and excitement levels increase, Saturday will be one of those nights at the Stadium of Light as we lock horns with the Hatters for the third time this season.

It’ll be loud, proud, and fervent. The players should thrive on it and play without fear, as league form is rendered immaterial and mathematical possibilities are put aside. It’s now a straight shootout for a ticket to Wembley, and we’ve got as good a chance as any of our rivals.

Against all the odds, it’s playoff football for Sunderland once again.

The so-called supercomputer might’ve had us struggling and it might’ve been borderline unthinkable last August, but it’s a rich and deserved reward for a group of players and a head coach who've kept going until the very end.

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


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