Hope, Elation And Despair: Sunderland’s Play-off Inquest

Graeme Atkinson analyses Sunderland's crushing play-off defeat to Lincoln City and asks: what's next?

Saturday’s second leg play-off tie had everything Sunderland football club has to offer condensed into 90minutes – the hope, the elation and of course, the despair. Oh, absolutely the despair. It was the full package wrapped in red and white.

The Hope

It began in cathartic fashion with supporters’ match day routines restarting after their year-long hiatus. Every emotion heightened before a ball was kicked; the scarves, the shirts, the familiar sights around the ground. Familiarity has been an absent friend for too long. Therefore, just being back was everything for the ten thousand who could attend. Supporters were finally reunited with their club and in turn this showed to all watching, if proof were ever needed of course, the fans are its lifeblood.

For the footballers, on the pitch routine has been their link to a normalcy we’ve all craved in these COVID times. As such, for them the distractions around the novelty of the day shouldn’t have existed. And indeed the manner in which Lee Johnson’s men came out of the traps against Lincoln was imbued with a laser focus.

It was an effort which shocked, in truth. Nothing immediately preceding it suggested it was possible.

Post Peterborough away and up until the play-offs it was eight games, 1 win, 3 draws and 4 defeats. 0.75 points per game.

Despite Johnson’s promise of a reset, Wednesday night’s first leg was a limp affair. It continued showing Sunderland in their worst light. Lincoln were poor that evening. Still, the Black Cats conspired to perform as if they were a journeyman boxer fighting on too long beyond their physical limit. The Lewis van Poetsch of League One.

In this light, expectation was rightly low before the match. But, from nowhere the game’s opening reignited hope on Wearside. Hope, of all things. In these circumstances how did it find its way here? The first 45 minutes on Saturday looked to have Lincoln completely rocking.

How was this even possible?

A welcome sight yet, in many ways, a jarring one. The Black Cats’ improvement between the first tie and the opening 45 mins of the second was stark.

Taking the boxing analogy further, against the backdrop of the groggy finish to the season it was simply astonishing. Sunderland had risen on nine from the referee’s mandatory ten-count to land a stunning surprise blow. It shocked everyone. None more so than the Whites.

The Elation

Belief burned through the terraces as if it were tinder to dry earth.

Michael Corleone had clacked through the turnstile at the Stadium if Light. It was truly a Godfather Part III moment – ‘just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!’

By the time Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke had levelled the tie just after the half hour mark supporters had already born witness to a vibrant attacking display that had Sunderland on the verge of another Wembley visit. Miracles do happen. Or so we thought.

Let’s not speak of the what-might-have-beens. The Wyke chance. It’s the stuff of nightmares. We may yet spend many a night waking to the shrilling sound of our own voices shouting, “JUST SQUARE IT”. But, with just over 30 goals this season it feels unjust to judge him too harshly.

Lincoln was of course saved by the bell. If Sunderland had fought too many rounds to feel anything other than groggy, Michael Appleton’s men were now also punch drunk.

And then of course Sunderland did Sunderland.

Just when it seems easier to seize victory this club keeps reinventing ways to disappoint.

Lee Johnson has been rightly praised since his December arrival. Lifting the EFL Trophy and the impressive 14 game unbeaten run were rightly lauded. All of this, with a defensive injury crisis that has hung over the club’s entire season too. Inheriting a dispirited squad from an even more dispiriting Phil Parkinson can’t have been easy. Yet, just as plaudits have been heaped upon him during the good times, criticism must duly be given in the bad. Appleton changed the entire tie with a half time team talk and two substitutions. Just like that, Johnson was out thought, out manoeuvred and too slow to respond.

In contrast Johnson’s own substitutions appeared as if they were in response to another match – odd and as a result, ineffectual. Just as Sunderland looked to play it long, off came the giant Ross Stewart and on went Aiden O’Brien. He may become a top-drawer player but, in this moment, Jack Diamond doesn’t look a match winner. Therefore, despite Jordan Jones’ indifferent loan spell he may have been the one to get the nod when Chris Maguire departed the field. Putting Lynden Gooch at left back was also a strange move given Tom Flanagan’s availability. All in all, unimpressive and unsuccessful.

The Despair

Lee Burge’s penalty save should’ve been the catalyst for Sunderland to have one final push. Lincoln seemed more mentally resilient than the Wearsiders though. The weight of this club is too heavy for so many in this squad. It seems to visibly drag them down just when it should lift them up.

Tom Hopper’s goal had been coming. As soon as the second half whistle blew it was inevitable. Sunderland’s brief moment of clarity and purpose was over and the battered and beleaguered fighter from April/May had returned.

What’s next?

So, here’s to a fourth season in League One. Louis-Dreyfus has many, many challenges ahead. In these moments the club seems as far away as ever from real progress on the pitch. In fact with so many players now out of contract it feels unlikely that an entirely new squad will be able to gel immediately. What then will that mean for our promotion chances as we look to go again in what is likely to be another bruising season? Success is not impossible but that may yet be Johnson’s excuse already written.

The elephant in the room is whether Johnson is even the right man to lead the club into the new campaign. At a time when a huge turnover in playing personnel is necessary, would changing the Head Coach at the same time be so foolish? Or alternatively a chance to truly reset and cement a new vision? Arguably with the infrastructure now in place behind the scenes that will be the stability required.

When considering Johnson’s reign so far it’s true there is the ying and the yang. For every positive, a negative. For every failure, a reasonable reason to explain it all away. Yet even with our highest placed finish in League One and victory at Wembley, such was the remarkable nature of our implosion it feels as though Johnson will have to embark on an incredible run of victories next season just to get some goodwill back. The jury is still out for many.  Either way, Louis-Dreyfus has already spoke of the importance of not panicking should we fall short. As such, Johnson will likely be in the hot seat come August.

What’s next? The cycle of hope, elation and despair has to end. The latter needs to be reduced to the briefest of visitors instead of a constant companion. It is in these, the embers of the most unique of seasons, Louis-Dreyfus has to find a way to establish Sunderland as promotion candidates and the scale of this challenge now feels monumental.

Graeme Atkinson