At last. After 1,386 days, 182 games, 86 wins, 35 defeats, 285 goals for and 181 against, 102 first-team players, four managers, three chancers, two chairmen and one sweet, sweet, Saturday afternoon in May, Sunderland are up and out of League One. They leave behind not only Wycombe Wanderers but also, we sincerely hope, the darkest days in our club’s long history.
Fifteen years ago, at the point of Sunderland’s last promotion, manager Roy Keane was out walking his dog. Keane refused to watch as third-placed Derby County lost at Crystal Palace, promoting his side without another ball needing to be kicked. You have to go back over 17 years, to a 2-1 home victory against Leicester City under Mick McCarthy, for the last time we fans got to delight in a day like today.
That delight will flow in great torrents now, enough to fill Trafalgar Square’s fountains many times over this evening, and so it should.
At several turns these last four years have felt like an awful fever dream. The lows have arrived with maddening frequency and taken us to places we had never deemed feasible; the highs, such as they were, have always been tainted by limitations of scope. Sunderland AFC is, was and always will be out of place in the third tier of English football.
In the past four years we have lost to Burton Albion, Portsmouth, Coventry City, Fleetwood Town, Southend United, Charlton Athletic, Peterborough United, Lincoln City, Wycombe Wanderers, Shrewsbury Town, Burton Albion again, Gillingham, Portsmouth again, Coventry City again, Bristol Rovers, Portsmouth for a third time, MK Dons, Wigan Athletic, Plymouth Argyle, Shrewsbury Town again, Charlton Athletic again, Wigan Athletic again, Blackpool, Blackpool again, Lincoln City again, Burton Albion for a third time, Portsmouth yet again, Charlton Athletic for a third time, Rotherham United, Sheffield Wednesday, Lincoln City for a third time, Bolton Wanderers, Doncaster Rovers, Cheltenham Town and MK Dons again. If that sounds a bit like the FA Cup first round draw that’s because it basically is. And we’ve lost in the first round of that three times too.
All of those clubs deserved those victories, and pointing out our losses isn’t to denigrate them. Rather it highlights just how stark a removal the last half-decade has been for a club which previously enjoyed – in a fairly loose sense of the word, granted – a decade straight in the Premier League. To say this spell in the third tier has been chastening would be a severe understatement.
It is not, however, a coincidence that the man who has steered us out of this division has steadfastly refused to agree the club has a divine right to ply its trade at a higher level.
Alex Neil operates in the here and now, a man of few distractions and supreme pragmatism. Neil does not suffer fools gladly nor, at times, does it seem he does anything else with glee. If that sounds unfair on him then consider this: even before today, he was comfortably the best manager we’ve hired since we tumbled out of the Premier League five years ago.
Make no mistake: this promotion is down to him more than anyone else. He arrived amid chaos and a new nadir and has turned around the worst defence in the club’s history. That he has done so with a weaker squad than his predecessor is remarkable.
It has not always been pretty. The glee and smooth sailing of recent weeks has shelved memories of how rocky things got at times. But eventually it became clear that the repeated last-minute winners were borne not of luck but a newfound desire and ability to outlast opponents.
Similarly, uneasy on the eye performances soon became the acceptable trade-off for repeated clean sheets for a side who previously couldn’t buy one. More recently those squirmy showings have given way to the type of dominance and confidence many of us have expected of the team since 2018.
Today’s result means Neil has guided Sunderland to 16 consecutive games without defeat. Given what had come before there’s a fair argument the man should be knighted. It is easy to forget now just how badly things were going at the end of January and the beginning of February, PR signings of soon-to-retire strikers aside. Neil arrived and took this team by the scruff of the neck and it is hard to imagine many others who could have achieved promotion from the position he has.
Above all else this summer, tying him down to a long-term deal should take precedence. This is still not a football club being the best it can be, but to their credit those in charge of the decisions have stumbled upon a gem of a manager. Today has proven once and for all the importance of keeping him.
A moment of self-indulgence. For this scribbler, the shared miseries of the past four years have taken on an unfortunate personal bent too. The details of how and why need not be recounted here; if you have followed this outlet with any interest over that time, you’ll already be well-versed. Suffice to say the events that have unfolded under and been directed by those at the top of our football club have ranged from unsavoury to downright scandalous.
It has, in truth, often made this football club a difficult one to support. The pull of on-field glory and the rush of winning has too long been offset by the nagging worry that the team doing well in the short-term might injure the club in the long-term. The nakedly financial goals of the ownership have been at odds with what is best for the club, the real club, our club, not just those passing through at the top.
Does such a feeling mar today’s joy? No. Little could. Those whose names won’t be mentioned in this scrawl of glee remain on limited time. Promotion mightn’t be the personal boon they think it is and, whatever happened today, it was hard not to suspect they won’t be able to linger much longer. Today marks four years since the day they officially first darkened our door. How nice it would be if this is their final association with a club they are not even close to worthy of.
Such thoughts are for another day. Tonight and tomorrow and, dare I say it, between now and July 30th are for celebration, for rejoice and relief. 46,000 of us were in that ground today, several more outside unable to get a ticket, all of us willing and hoping it would be our turn. Finally, it was.
A fan base as large as this one will always be prone to disagreements, always run the risk of being a curse as much as it is an asset. These past few years have seen us riven apart at times, people with the same hopes and goals at odds with one another. That is a reflection of the dire situation we have found ourselves in and the desire of all of us to right the ship. Tonight is a night to celebrate as one, whatever our past differences.
We have lived through the worst years in our club’s history. Let us all hope today is Sunderland AFC coming out the other side. Ha’way.