The weekend may be over but the euphoria has yet to dissipate. Let’s hold on to the feeling for as long as possible.
Victory. At. Wembley.
With two in two seasons under the arch, that particular hoodoo has now well and truly been exorcised. But this one was extra special. The weekend’s sensational result against the Chairboys offered more than anything any EFL Trophy win provided.
It wasn’t just promotion back to the Championship.
It wasn’t only the fact that it was in front of 50,000 Sunderland supporters this time around either.
It was of course both of those things together yes, but crucially and far more importantly for everyone connected to the club, those 90 minutes became a purging – a release of the despair we’ve all endured whilst suffering the indignity of that pathetic, horrid little league.
With each goal, with every crunching tackle, every voice singing I Can’t Help Falling In Love, every tear of joy shed, each embrace with family and friends – they combined to sweep it all away, the agony and the misery that these last four years have brought us evaporated all at once. Magical. Truly palpable, emotional magic.
There were many lows while being down in League One. Too many to mention here. This season alone saw the Bolton debacle and the Mike Dodds led back-to-back defeats against Doncaster Rovers and Cheltenham Town. There is little merit in covering them all again now. But they all played a role in our club being on the verge of succumbing completely to a misery that only the lower leagues offer.
However, every single sickening time that each passing week revealed a new low, when defeat stung like fire, all of that, every last bit, was put firmly in a box and sealed away on Saturday. Concerns around ownership should not be forgotten of course.
Yet, if League One was a toxic relationship, Wembley was ‘closure’.
We hope it will never be experienced by any of us ever again under any circumstances.
Conversely, the confidence experienced during the weekend and the days leading up to it felt strangely unique. Expectation is usually reserved for crushing disappointment. Even on those few occasions during the game where any doubt began creeping into the collective Sunderland consciousness, by sheer force of will, we refused to allow it time to breath. It was enthusiastically and as one, stamped out by all in red and white.
Such was the power of momentum that Alex Neil helped create, it felt like nothing was going to stop Sunderland AFC from winning the play-off final. Nothing. That’s the feeling that certainly surrounded build-up and that confidence spilled magically into the match itself.
Taking nothing away from the players here. They have been the ones on the pitch after all, but make no mistake, the Scot was the decisive factor in promotion. The immediate previous incumbents Jack Ross, Phil Parkinson and Lee Johnson all had a turn in a hot seat that only consumed them in the flame.
Only Neil has managed to discover a way to propel the club upwards, where it should be.
The manner in which he shored up the defence since his arrival a short time ago has been miraculous. But it has been more than this. Much more. The no-nonsense approach, the tactical astuteness, the natural calm demeanour, the quiet confidence, the ability to repay trust from supporters, the list goes on. Quite simply, Alex Neil is the right cultural fit. It feels like there is a connection. It feels right.
The challenge now will be to ensure he is tied down to a long term contract and allowed time to develop on what has already been achieved. All eyes will be on the board in the days ahead. If they fail to act decisively and capitalise on the momentum then it will undoubtedly be seen as a massive failure.
Why? Well, in less than 100 days Alex Neil maybe hasn’t brought the magic, but he’s been the first in a long, long time to remember how to find it.