Looking back at the Sunderland annals it seems crazy when something more recent still feels like it took place in a different world entirely.
It will be some time yet before we truly come to terms with the scars left by the COVID-19 pandemic, a surreal and often sad experience for many of us that although fresh in our minds, can now sometimes feel like it was a twisted dream from the dim and distant past such is the way time moves on.
With day-to-day activity now back to normal though some of the lessons learned should never be ignored, nor will the role football had in maintaining spirits at that point ever be forgotten by the fans.
Being able to watch games when so many other pastimes had been curtailed was a huge thing, and whilst most matches were behind closed doors and had a rather usual feel to them, they still helped numerous people get through an otherwise dark time.
It was only three years ago that we were having to make do with rather limited streaming options to follow the Lads, and whilst specific moments from the 2020-21 are harder to recall given the way it was viewed, there were still some morale-boosting afternoons to keep the supporters going.
The team itself was in a state of flux too, although in the month or so since Lee Johnson had been appointed head coach there had been some signs of improvement – just not consistently enough for most people’s liking. Form at the Stadium of Light in particular was mixed still, and Johnson was still waiting for his first league victory on home soil when Shrewsbury Town visited Wearside on this day.
The absence of crowds felt like it had been a contributory factor in the results so far, yet there was one individual who happened to be enjoying his best ever stint in a Sunderland shirt despite the unusual atmosphere and who was about to do the business once again.
Charlie Wyke’s time at the club still splits opinion. He could be a handful at times, yet on some occasions, a perceived lack of work rate and street smarts frustrated the life out of people. His general contribution to the team was often questioned, but there was little argument with his scoring record during the season, when his one touch finishing was the main source of goals during a period in which the forward was on fire.
His hot streak in front of the empty stands was often the difference in games and a week prior Wyke had scored an impressive hattrick against Wimbledon. Another home loss in midweek had followed however when Plymouth Argyle went away with the points, but the Shrews were only just getting back into the swing of things after some covid forced postponements and their squad looked to still be feeling the after effects.
Manager Steve Cotterill, familiar of course to many Sunderland fans due to his previous stint on the coaching staff, was even hospitalised at one point and the team struggled to keep pace with the Lads.
The only goal of the afternoon came relatively early in the proceedings. Aiden McGeady, recently brought back in from the cold by Johnson, found his way to the byline and dinked a cross over that was met by Wyke on the corner of the six yard box – his deft header looping over goalkeeper Matija Sarkic to make it 1-0, and from then on in everything seemed to be under control.
The closest either side went to another goal was when Wyke did all the hard work by beating a defence that included former teammate Donald Love and rounded Sarkic only to then miss the target, but with a clean sheet being achieved at the other end it mattered little.
Sunderland confirmed a decent win therefore, providing some cheer for those forced to take things in from the comfort of their living room. The season would eventually see the squad fall short in their push for promotion, and even if they had gone up it is debatable whether it would be looked on as fondly as other successes given the circumstances in which it was played.
One thing is certain though – attending games in person will never be taken for granted again.
Saturday 23 January 2023
Sky Bet League One
Sunderland 1 (Wyke 18’)
Shrewsbury Town 0
Sunderland: Burge; Power, Willis, Wright; McFadzean; Diamond (Maguire 67’), Leadbitter, Scowen (O’Nien 88’), McGeady (Winchester 81’); Wyke, O’Brien. Unused: Matthews, Sanderson, Embleton, Graham.
Stadium of Light