Nine days into February, on a bitingly cold evening in Shropshire, Sunderland tumble to defeat away to Shrewsbury Town. Aiden O’Brien’s first-half opener was cancelled out and then gazumped by two second half goals from the hosts, Sunderland had their fifth league defeat of the season and promotion looked a very long way away indeed.
The evening would have been just another low in the misery tale that is Sunderland In League One, but a notable attendee did offer some hope. In the stands at the New Meadow that evening, fresh from a fortnight’s quarantine, was Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, enjoying (in the loosest sense of the word) his first in-person experience of our club.
KLD’s reign as Sunderland owner-chairman did not officially begin that evening, nor even until after the two games that followed it. But it was then that it became clear his takeover was going to succeed, that the obstacles the outgoing majority owner couldn’t help but place in the way had been overcome.
Right now, that evening feels almost seminal. Since that pitiful showing, Lee Johnson’s men have played 13 games and not lost one. Even a dismal trip to Crewe ended in euphoria, a Chris Maguire thunderbolt in the seventh minute of added time overturning a two-goal deficit that made a draw feel rather victorious.
Of the nine league victories in that spell, seven have been won by two goals or more. That shows a level of supremacy that has been missing for too much of the near three years we have spent down here.
It has not been a procession. Friday’s tempestuous win over Oxford United was proof enough of that. Some of the visitors’ half-time ire was doubtless derived from three added minutes of questionable origin, during which Sunderland levelled against a side that had, for most of that opening stanza, done a bit of a number on them.
What followed at half-time and in the second half was eminently refreshing. Rather than get riled or shirk from the challenge, Johnson’s men met it and then some. Oxford, it must be said, were the architects of their own downfall, but that we took full advantage should not go without praise. It has been said by some that under the previous two managers that was a game we’d not have won; that’s impossible to know but there’s a reason people believe it.
The change at this club since the beginning of December – for that is when the Louis-Dreyfus regime effectively began, whatever the paperwork may say – has been remarkable. At that point the club boasted no Sporting Director, no Chief Operating Officer (save the puppet that was Jim Rodwell), no Head of Data and Analysis, no one in charge of the Academy of Light, no Head of Recruitment.
Hell, we didn’t even have an official chairman, the last one having sheepishly skittled back to Oxford, flinging legal threats and police complaints in his wake.
All those appointments have been made, and more are expected to follow. It would be foolish to wax too lyrical until they’ve been given chance to perform their roles capably (or otherwise), but the fact a structure of this sort is being implemented at all is cause for commendation. Already, the rudderless husk KLD inherited is beginning to resemble, and say this one quietly in case we jinx it, a modern football club.
Where austerity was the order of the day under Madrox, the signs are that such days are at an end. Talk of long-term plans have been uttered on Wearside before, but this time it does at least seem like some thought has gone into them. Investment in the playing surface and the aforementioned staffing, which we can expect to be bulked out even further come the summer when on-field events take a back seat, is a world away from what we’ve been used to, and feels all the better for it.
The stock phrase at clubs in turmoil is that players “don’t pay attention” to what goes on at boardroom level, but it seems hardly a coincidence that the upturn in form has coincided with stability above. Numerous players and the manager himself have referenced the change in mood around the place since the takeover went through and, though we spend our time observing from separate sitting rooms, it’s unquestionable there’s been a collective uplift among the fan base too.
That upturn in form has been key in maintaining the feel-good factor, and how the next nine games pan out will in turn be pivotal in what the summer looks like. Where previously a League One rebuild looked inevitable, now Sunderland have an extremely good chance of making the long-overdue leap to the Championship before May is out, an achievement which would vastly widen the scope for what can be built sooner rather than later.
Those next nine games commence with an Easter Monday trip to Peterborough United. A similar trip two years ago dealt a hammer blow to automatic promotion hopes, but the truth is this time a point would serve Sunderland better than the Posh. Loath as we are to jinx anything, this season has all the hallmarks of the one under Roy Keane nearly fifteen years ago; momentum, it would seem, is everything.
Monday will mark 725 days since Sunderland last occupied an automatic promotion spot in this division, almost two years. Granted, a good few months of that time were robbed from us by last year’s Covid-19 break, but that’s still a bewilderingly long time for this club to have been exiled from the top two.
Two years ago we landed there by virtue of a one-all draw at home to Burton, a match memorable for the fact Charlie Wyke managed to miss from pretty much on the goal line. The dam broke in a ludicrous 5-4 defeat at home to Coventry a few days later, and the summits of League One haven’t been reached since.
Win at Peterborough and that will end and so, you increasingly think, will our stint down here. The past two months have been almost dreamlike, save for the unforgettable reality that none of us can be there to witness it.
For all the misery we’ve endured over recent years and past decades, we know what a promotion season looks like when we see one and whisper it, don’t tell your group of six just yet, but this current run is rather akin to the sort that end with us all cheering on the final day, looking ahead to summer anew.