Unbeaten runs have tough endings. Having enjoyed the sweetness of victory for so long, a loss can range from merely jarring to downright catastrophic.
Arsenal racked up 49 league games without defeat from May 2003 to October 2004, finally running aground at Old Trafford. They haven’t won a Premier League title since. Michael Spinks, former light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion of the world, racked up 31 wins without defeat before walking into the right hand of one Mike Tyson. Spinks never boxed again.
Sunderland don’t have the option to retire like Spinks did, and fourteen games without a reversal in the third tier and the EFL Trophy don’t really come close to the heights reached by him or The Gunners, but the immediate feeling following yesterday’s loss to Charlton Athletic won’t have been too dissimilar. After a, by our recent standards, euphoric two months, that defeat has brought plenty back down to earth with a rather untimely bump. The fallout could be grim.
It was not just defeat that has set nerves jangling, nor even its nature (and we’ll go into that soon enough), but rather what it may mean for this season as a whole. Having looked a million miles from automatic promotion just a couple of months ago, that unbeaten run had not only seen the possibility come roaring into focus, but also instigated a rapid revision of people’s expectations.
Now, with Hull and Peterborough both registering thumping away wins, and memories of the past two seasons’ endings rearing their heads as they are wont to do, it would be easy to assume history is about to repeat itself. The term ‘bottlers’, I’m sure, won’t be too far from some lips.
That seems unfair and rather ignorant of the wider context surrounding our club right now. This was the first (official) defeat of the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus era, and that it has dealt a significant blow to our automatic promotion hopes is a reflection of the turnaround since KLD arrived, rather than symptomatic of a club once again blowing it at the most important hurdle.
This is a season that was largely written off by many, yours truly included, back in the icy throes of January and early February. A third season in League One looked certain to roll into a fourth because, quite frankly, the actions taken by those at the top of the club were in their own interests rather than the football club’s. Had Those Who Shall Not Be Named sold up when they’d said they would, we could be streets ahead of what is a decidedly poor division. They didn’t, we tanked the best part of half a season and we’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
That we have got ourselves into a position where yesterday’s loss feels crushing is testament to the swift and hard work undertaken since the new men came in. Lee Johnson is not perfect, and we were warned he is a streaky manager, but the performances of recent weeks have been a world away from the dross served up under Phil Parkinson. It has been a struggle, at times, to understand how this can be largely the same squad as the one that stumbled through the first three months of this term.
Yesterday’s was a strange game. In another time, in another world (more accurately, just a few weeks ago), Charlie Wyke would have had a first-half hat-trick and we’d have been home and hosed. But this is now and instead Wyke’s first effort went narrowly wide, his second was well saved but should have been scored and his third, in fairness, produced a ludicrous stop that few at this level are capable of.
For all those chances, we never looked especially settled, never got properly to grips with a peculiarly open game. The hosts did settle and, while they may have enjoyed some fortune at times, by the end it was a stretch to say they didn’t deserve the win.
In truth, such a setback wasn’t especially surprising. There have been warning signs for a little while now, undercooked performances still yielding victories, little moments of magic digging us out of trouble. There’s nothing wrong with that – few sides can be great all the time – but it does at least highlight why this loss shouldn’t be met with too much shock and horror.
Lee Johnson has done a lot more good than bad in his relatively short time here, but yesterday it was hard not to think his own tinkering undid him. By and large, Luke O’Nien has done just fine at centre-half, but plopping Max Power in there too, against a resurgent side who are pushing for the play-offs, seemed to be asking for trouble. The chaotic defending on display suggests that particular request was granted.
There were other peculiarities too, the leaving out of Jordan Jones chief among them but, again, to lambast a manager for tinkering too much when we lose would rob us of the ability to praise him for it when we win. Or snatch a draw from a losing position. The latter has happened frequently under Johnson, another departure from the Parkinson era; where the latter waited much too long to affect games from the bench, Johnson has been proactive in the extreme.
Whether this defeat proves catastrophic will depend on what follows it. For all the misery that naturally accompanies defeat, finishing in the top two does still remain in Sunderland’s hands. Win out from here and we’ll topple Hull, and then the hard work really will begin.
That Hull game, still three games away but looming like the Daily Mail over Raheem Sterling’s fence, now becomes even bigger than it was before. Lose there and yes, it’ll almost certainly be the play-offs again. But win it? Well, let’s not jinx it, eh?
Even the most rose-tinted of supporters would have struggled to assume we’d go the remainder of this season unbeaten, but actually accepting defeat when it arrives is an altogether tougher affair. Yesterday was a disappointment, a huge one, and if it sets in motion a chain of events that resigns us to another stint ‘down here’ then it will pour an ample amount of cold water over the warmth we’ve all felt since February.
It’s much too early to know whether it will or not. Losing to Charlton felt like our first loss in eons, yet it was Lee Johnson’s fourth defeat since taking the reins here. The other three were all followed up with an immediate win. If he can ensure the same on Tuesday at Wigan, the worries of this weekend might well depart as quickly as they arrived.