Mid-term Report – How our writers rate Sunderland’s season so far

The Wise Men Say writers give their verdict on Sunderland’s 21-22 campaign so far as we reach the halfway point of the season

Sunderland’s 3-0 win at Doncaster Rovers saw the Black Cats hit the halfway mark of their fourth season in League 1 in fine shape – second in the table, nine games unbeaten.

In this mid-term review, our writers revisit their pre-season predictions and assess what Lee Johnson needs to do in order to lead his side to promotion into the Championship.

Graeme Atkinson

Sunderland’s campaign looks to have been rejuvenated somewhat on the back of nine games unbeaten. Performances have returned to the silky, fluid passing football witnessed at the start of the season and positive results have followed, helping ensure the club is back on track to achieving the fabled 2ppg and hopefully one of those two automatic promotion spots.

The picture didn’t always look this rosy – summer recruitment was glacially slow meaning the club started the season short in many areas and lacking any senior full-backs. Nevertheless, Johnson’s coaching methods paid dividends. Those that benefited from a full pre-season under the former Bristol City man were now firing on all cylinders. Once recruits were brought in, the squad looked to have a clear identity and an embarrassment of riches in most areas.

Yet, that optimism during those heady months of summer into early autumn was punctured sharply by one of Lee Johnson’s characteristic ‘streaks’. It wasn’t this single bad run that had some supporters doubting his suitability. The dramatic decline of last season leading into the playoffs still lingered in the minds of supporters and history looked to be repeating.

Johnson should enjoy the plaudits for turning Sunderland’s dip around, especially amidst another injury crisis. However, even with our recent return to form he will frankly not escape his ‘streaky’ tag until he does. That is likely to mean automatic promotion will be required. It is to his credit then, that as we approach January and a vital transfer window, Johnson has the club on course.

Player of the season so far: Dan Neil
Prediction at start of the season: 6th
Updated prediction: 3rd

Jimmy Reay

Been alright so far hasn’t it? Looking back on my preseason prediction was a stark reminder of the mood on Wearside before a ball had been kicked this season; there were plenty of reasons not to be cheerful, and a fair amount of trepidation for what was to come.

So far, so different in the main. At the time of writing Sunderland lie in a well-deserved second place in League One, with a chance to go top if we beat Sheffield Wednesday thanks to the breaking (at the time of writing) news Rotherham’s game with Lincoln has been postponed. It’s nice to be on the other side of the games-in-hand conundrum for once.

We’re playing some scintillating stuff at times, scoring plenty of goals and in general doing things we, as Sunderland fans, are not used to seeing. Keep this up (and by this, I mean approaching games and collecting points we are) and we will get promoted, of that I am sure.

Therein lies the rub though, as we’ve seen across his tenure at Sunderland so far and in his previous jobs too, Lee Johnson does not have the nickname streaky by accident. Combining the streakiness with the lack of a promotion on his CV means that the lingering doubt will remain until it’s done. But that’s OK – cautious optimism seems the way forward at this point.

Another raft of injury issues mean that January is going to be incredibly important for us, we have to consolidate our position and push on into the new year. The squad is small, but it’s strong. They’ve proven that. As good as Ross Stewart has been (and he’s been excellent), we need cover up front given the Broadhead injury. Defensively we’ve been questionable anyway so reinforcements at the back are a must, too.

No major surgery to the squad or changes at all are needed, but we can’t stand still. It’s a cliché but it’s true – do that and you move backwards. Promotion has been a must for Sunderland every year since our relegation from the Premier League (never mind the Championship) and we have never looked more like achieving it than we do right now.

Our current trajectory is up. I fear no-one in this league and say no team at their peak is stronger than we are. This is ours for the taking. It won’t be easy, but nor should it and nor does that mean we can’t do it.

Player of the season so far: Tough one… could be 3 or 4 easily, but he’s one of our own so Dan Neil.
Prediction at the start of season: 2nd
Updated prediction: 1st

Stephen Kennedy

We’ve enjoyed what’s felt like a more well-put together start to the season than in any of our other years in this absolute circus of a league. There’s been a more evident playing style and approach to recruitment, and whilst neither has been 100% successful, both have had more ups than downs, and have, for the large part, made us look like there’s a vague plan.

We started like a house on fire, but when we eventually did lose, we got torn apart, which left us in our customary position of “we could go top if we win our games in hand”, which we inevitably did not. In other words, we have thoroughly Peterboroughed the first half of the season. We’re not a million miles away from where we need to be, and we’ve freed ourselves from the tyranny of the dreaded 1-1 draws, as well as largely stepping up our performances against the relegation fodder of the league. But the fact remains, we’ve still not been in the top two enough, and realistically, at the time of writing, we’re only up there due to Wigan not playing and already having games in hand on us.

That’s not to say this season hasn’t been an improvement, as of course, this campaign has been the only one where we’ve actually topped the division at the end of any round of fixtures. But short term improvements, while all well and good, still isn’t quite good enough; however, we have at the very least put ourselves in a strong position to kick on in the second half of the season. Without doubt, whether we get promoted or not will come down to two things: 1) January recruitment (particularly replacing the injured) and 2) if we go on another bad run.

Strengthen in the window, and don’t sell anyone of use, and we’ll have a great chance of seeing our quality get us through, but I’m not convinced we can maintain an automatics challenge if we go on another winless/losing every game by 3+ run.

Player of the season so far: Carl Winchester
Prediction at the start of season: 2nd
Updated prediction: 2nd

Matt Wilson

Looking back at my pre-season predictions piece, the pessimism is telling. My feeling was we needed further strengthening, particularly in fullback areas, as well as young players like Doyle, Stewart, Neil and Embleton to come good.

Clearly Lee Johnson and the squad are big fans of my work, took heed and started the season in great form winning 14 out of our first 17 games in all competitions. Then came the customary bad streak losing 3 straight league games, conceding 9 goals in the process, as well as suffering cup defeats to League 2 opposition in the form of Mansfield and Oldham.

We seem to be back on an upward curve now in terms of performances and results, however the squad has of late resembled that of zombified corpse… midfielders screwed into fullback positions, centre halves where other fullbacks should be and, until recently, Luke O’Nien’s arm hanging off. This Frankenstein’s monster of a side is still, somehow, lurching towards a Top 2 spot, however there are tough tests to come with January looking like a pivotal month with Wycombe, Lincoln and Portsmouth all to play.

A big transfer window looms and we simply must get it right if we’re to maintain a charge on automatic promotion, but with other sides around us having games in hand and another bad streak always lurking around the corner I fear we may just miss out, again. I hope I’m wrong.

Player of the season so far: Alex Pritchard (purely because everyone else will rightly say Dan Neil)
Prediction at the start of season: 6th
Updated prediction: 3rd

Richard Easterbrook

If you were to ignore Sunderland’s absolutely horrific mini-break to Yorkshire earlier in the season, where they followed up a 5-1 defeat at Rotherham with a similarly chastening 3-0 reverse at Sheffield Wednesday in a run of games that also included a meek FA Cup exit at the hands of Mansfield Town, then we could easily say that the majority of our pre-season predictions were incredibly wide of the mark.

Those predictions were made at a time where the club had only brought in three new players following a summer of significant outgoings, and without a fit full-back on the books.

But everything came together surprisingly well, as our makeshift XI battled to an opening-day victory against still-to-gel Wigan Athletic.

The signings of Ron-Thorben Hoffman, Leon Dajaku, Niall Huggins, Dennis Cirkin and Nathan Broadhead showed that there is a definite recruitment blueprint in place, and on the pitch, there was a system, a style and a verve to our performances that we had seldom seen at this level.

The start to the campaign allowed us to get ahead of the game for once, to be the team that others need to catch up to, but the subsequent slump cancelled this out.

Now, we’re back up to 2.0ppg and our performances are once more matching the electric start to the season. Rotherham United and Wigan are going to be the teams to beat, and we need to stay as close to them as possible.

We can afford to lose the odd game here and there, but another loss of form like we saw earlier this season will surely end our chances of automatic promotion.

In terms of January activity, we could definitely do with a full-back to reduce the necessity for a midfielder to drop in when injuries strike, but clearly Lee Johnson’s priorities are in recruiting a striker, with the impressive Broadhead now sidelined for at least three months with a hamstring injury.

Player of the season so far: Dan Neil
Prediction at the start of season: 5th
Updated prediction: 3rd

Michael Lough

If you’d offered me our current situation before a ball was kicked this season, I would have been absolutely delighted.

My pre-season predictions may look comically pessimistic in hindsight but after three weeks of Covid related self isolation and a distinct lack of activity in the transfer market it was safe to say that I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic at the start of the season.

I was anticipating a slow start which would in turn cause panic throughout the fanbase on the back of our disastrous end to the 2020-2021 campaign.

As it transpired, quite the opposite took place and we started the season in blistering form playing some excellent attacking football, with an exciting, young spine to the team.

Regardless of competition and personale, we played the same brand of football and were winning games at will.

Then came the disastrous few weeks where we couldn’t buy a win, the football went stale and the ghosts of our League One season’s past appeared to be haunting us once again.

A slightly fortuitous 2-0 win over Ipswich turned the tide, however and with the exception of Shrewsbury a few days later, performance levels have been much improved and should we beat Sheffield Wednesday we will end the new year ahead of the promotion pack.

Given our recent injury record, the Covid situation and our fixture pile up, Lee Johnson and the players deserve enormous credit for remaining so consistent.

The next month or so will very much determine our season, with a replacement for Nathan Broadhead required, along with much needed competition for places in key positions, the transfer window could be the difference between automatic promotion and another dreaded play off campaign.

In League One, the reality is, Sunderland will always only be a few games away from a crisis, but even during bad spells, only a couple of wins away from being right back in the mix.

If the players show the same desire and ability they’ve shown recently, there’s no reason at all we can’t finally get out of this league.

Player of the season so far: Dan Neil
Pre-season prediction: 8th
Updated prediction: 2nd

Melissa Johnson

The bilious, bloated and beer trodden – what day is it again? period between Christmas and New Year is frankly the most depressing for self-reflection and I’m positively incensed at having to lift my head from my sloth like stupor to actually do something productive and put pen to paper but seeing as it you, I can oblige.

Consistency, enthusiasm and transparency, mixed with a touch of realism, was what I asked for at the beginning of the season and that’s kind, sorta, mostly what we got. It is although much easier writing this after being smothered in buoyancy days after whopping a poor Doncaster Rovers side where the only slight negative was that we should have scored more. This was mainly down to the soft head of Truly Bobby Madley denying us arguably another two penalties but was probably thinking about his post match Christmas pork pie. Side note – something that hasn’t changed in anyone’s opinion is the quality of refereeing is this stupid league.

We’ve had the honestly boring back and forths about whether Johnson should be sacked or not, grumbles quite rightly – the Rotherham game being a particular low point and the run of games where you would rather have watched custard grow skin for hours than watch the lads.

With a plethora of long-term injuries still lingering over us and a number of players prone to playing a handful of games then having to recover, January is bloody important. What makes me feel somewhat calmer about it is that Lee Johnson is more than aware of this, saying after the news of Broadhead’s hamstring injury – “This is a disaster, we are going to need help in January.” He is correct.

But going from being stuck in the quicksand for a number of games, what’s more important is we found a way out of it and have gone on to take 18 points out of a possible 24 since 20 November. Plaudits to Johnson and the squad for fighting whilst still having to paper over the cracks, something I think many other clubs don’t realise when making snide comments about it being easy supporting ‘a club with millions’.

We need to be clever in January and think about the long term and not just game by game. What’s this side going to resemble come May? Will we be able to put the streaky Lee cringeathon in the bin and declare him something better but much more boring like Logical Lee or Just consistent Johnson? (we’ll work on it when it happens).

Much more positives than negatives and hopefully that will continue. Choosing best player so far was a pain – Pritchard is in great form, Stewart back on the scoresheet with 12 goals so far and I don’t think enough is said about the comfort in having someone like Hoffmann between the sticks and his additively positive personality but Dan Neil is very special to watch.

Player of the season so far: Dan Neil
Pre-season prediction: 5th
Updated prediction: 3rd