With the season at an end and as we look forward eagerly to the next, just about every Sunderland supporter would agree that 2022/23 was a memorable season. A team that finished fifth in League One a year ago, was not expected to pull up any trees this term and the expectation among the grounded and pragmatic was that it would be season of consolidation, and a midtable finish was as much as we could hope for.
Instead, this Sunderland squad punched way above the expectation level to finish in the play-offs. But what has wowed the fans and a considerable amount of onlooking neutrals, is not just a team that pushed into promotion contention, but also the style of football. The high-energy passing, with any player within the team looking comfortable on the ball, and team goals a regular feature throughout the season. That as much as anything is what we as fans have loved throughout the last season, with many fans commenting - even older heads - that they have never seen anything as good as the football served up in the last year.
That last sentence is one that can be thrown up for debate another time, but where we are now in terms of footballing style is a philosophy that began almost as soon as Kyril Louis - Dreyfus and Kristjaan Speakman rolled into town two and a half years ago.
One of their aims was to develop a style of play that was attractive to the fans. At that time, our fanbase had been subjected to a year of ‘Parkyball’ and a year before that of Jack ‘1-1’ Ross and not to mention the years of decline before them.
Newly installed head coach Lee Johnson believed in a much more attacking style than his conservative predecessors, and the first time I remember being witness to the new philosophy was when in the middle of lockdown, I sat down to watch Sunderland take on Wimbledon away on 16 January 2021.
The Sunderland team that started that day lined up as Burge, Power, McFadzean, Leadbitter, Willis, Wright, Embleton, Scowen, Wyke, O’Brien, McGeady.
Only one player of that eleven is still with the club.
Sunderland had won 4-0 at Lincoln one month before in a game I did not see, so I will happily give a nod of acknowledgment to anyone who can argue that they saw it start there, but the game at Wimbledon was the first time in years that a Sunderland team had me on the edge of the seat excited at what I was seeing. Freed from ‘Parkyball’ I watched that team pour forward, playing attacking football and looking to play from the back instead of the centre half launching long aimless balls to a lone striker. I know I wasn't alone thinking “this is more like it, we’ve been waiting years for this!”.
Charlie Wyke, who had who knows what instructions in his Sunderland career up to that point, started attacking the near post and ended up with a hattrick as Sunderland ran out 3-0 winners.
Two and a half years on from then and Sunderland now field a completely different lineup, with apart from Embleton, only Gooch and O’Nien still involved at the club in the last season. Better footballers have been recruited, and the style of football which is the same philosophy that started then - has evolved to a higher standard. We still play out from the back, but have players who can do it much more consistently, lose the ball much less frequently and can do it under pressure from a pressing opponent.
We now have players who are more comfortable on the ball and can offer much more in the way of end product, and more than anything else is that you can look through just about any Sunderland starting eleven this season and say that they have never had any ‘passengers’.
Since that day at Wimbledon, we have moved on to our third head coach.
Lee Johnson started off the evolvement in our style of play but was tactically naive at times, which you can argue cost him his job. Alex Neil who replaced him made a few tweaks to tighten things up at the back, took a couple of young shattered players out of the firing line but did not see the need to change the style of team because as he said ‘the side always had goals in them’. Then with his departure, we moved on to Tony Mowbray with our head coach encouraging his team to express themselves on the field and making the best use of talented players he spotted in the squad but were not getting any game time.
A different set of players, and different head coaches from where we started out when the present chairman took over to bring us to the point where we are now. Crucially, the philosophy to play vibrant, attacking, passing football has got the fans on board, with the atmosphere for the play-off game against Luton up there with the very best there has been at the Stadium of Light.
It is in contrast to the play-off game against Lincoln two years ago - just a few months after that Wimbledon game - which was also the first game where fans were admitted back into the Stadium of Light after lockdown. I remember the abuse directed towards Charlie Wyke from a section of the crowd after he missed an early crucial chance that day, but summed up the frustration of our wider fan base following years of decline.
It has been a long road to get everyone back onside, but this season we have all been wowed to the point where we have a united fan base who have bought into what the club are trying to do.
But as much as we have appreciated the class of 2022-23, I hope we are not looking back at them with fond wistful memories 5 years from now, in the same way we look at the Phillips/Quinn/Reid era and the way we never really stopped looking back at the 73 team.
Why? Because if we are, then it means we didn’t progress from this point.
The style of play, the football philosophy that began two and a half years ago should continue on and be our identity, our trademark for which this club is known for the next five, or even how about ten years? Irrespective of players who may be poached, with replacements identified beforehand and head coaches who may come and go. Even if our Director of Football was poached - and it does happen - I hope our Chairman has a list somewhere of possible names who would be ideal to fill the shoes of Kristjaan Speakman and continue his good work as effectively.
Older fans will remember talk of ‘The West Ham way’ which was their reputation down the years to play entertaining, passing football. Sunderland have wowed a wider audience than just their own fan base with their displays over the past season, through the increased exposure on Sky in the Championship and in the performances against Fulham in the F.A.Cup.
I hope our own brand evolves over the next few years and we become renowned nationally for playing exciting, attractive, attacking football - who knows, maybe even ‘The Sunderland way’.