Sunderland AFC Opinion – First leg victory just part of the club’s rebirth

There is belief, pride and passion back on Wearside as Sunderland's season continues against all the odds

Sunderland play a short corner, a sight that normally sends the average football fan’s blood pressure through the roof, but there are no audible groans, not today. Only anticipation.

Jack Clarke plays the ball to Amad Diallo, who plays a one-two with Dan Neil before finding Clarke again. The former Spurs man stands up an inviting ball for Trai Hume to attack and the Northern Irishman makes no mistake and finds the bottom corner.

The Stadium of Light explodes with joy, the substitutes warming up by the corner flag run over to join in the celebrations. In the stands, bodies fly in every direction as everyone from family and best friends to total strangers hug each other in sheer ecstasy. Tony Mowbray almost breaks out into a smile on the touchline.

The lads see the remainder of the game out and a spine-tingling rendition of Paint Your Wagon and Can’t Help Falling In Love is belted out by the crowd.

Outside, the scenes of jubilation continue in earnest, there’s excited chatter about where they’re going to watch the match on Tuesday. Tentative, yet excited plans for Wembley are made and the throng from the Wearmouth Bridge to town has a spring in its step as opposed to the traditional miserable trudge we’ve all become accustomed to.

Sunderland city centre remained buzzing until the early hours and although nobody quite knows what it is yet, everybody was apparently doing the Tony Mowbray.

Of course, we have been here before, just last season we banished the ghosts of Wembley visits past and completed a successful promotion play-off campaign for the first time in our history, but this feels different.

Although the celebrations of 2022 were jubilant and myself along with several thousand others shed enough tears to keep the River Wear topped up for a while, it was at the sheer relief of not having to travel to places like Burton, Fleetwood or a series of other towns that were always prefixed with the word ‘bloody’ rather sheer happiness alone.

When we were in League One, every defeat felt like a humiliation. We seemingly hit a new low every other week and victories were rarely savoured because we simply had to win the next one if we were to finally escape the clutches of the third tier.

This season was supposed to be different, it was meant to be about consolidation and hopefully play some decent football along the way.

Though we have flirted with the play-off places frequently throughout the season, achieving a top six finish didn’t have the same do or die feel. Victories have been enjoyed on their own merit and the atmosphere around the club has remained upbeat and positive even during a slump in February and March which saw us win just one game in nine.

Yes, there have been frustrations about a lack of depth in some areas, we might have a shortage of strikers and defenders but on the whole, the fanbase has more marvelled at the football we’ve played despite these limitations rather than curse the limitations themselves.

Naturally, as the season entered its final weeks the tension grew but rather than the dread of failure produced by other seasons, an atmosphere of excitement swept through the club and the city.

Against Birmingham, West Brom, Watford and Luton we went a goal down, but the crowd didn’t turn on them; the players’ heads never dropped and #tiltheend has gone from a fairly generic marketing slogan to an embodiment of the spirit and desire everyone at the club has shown.

Before the Preston game, rather than bemoaning the points we’d dropped against Watford, we believed we could do and in the build-up to the Luton game there wasn’t quite the same pre play-offs dread and the bars in Sunderland were more full of excitement than trepidation.

After the game, the city was so jubilant you could be forgiven for thinking that we’d got the job done already.

Nobody thinks that and it was far from a display of arrogance, it was merely immense pride in our football club, our city and the lads who represent us.

It makes no sense that we are even in this position with only one natural fit centre half, who isn’t ready for first team football, or just one fit striker, or specialist full backs all while boasting an average age of around 22, but we’re here and we’re two games away from Premier League football returning on Wearside.

The excitement surrounding the events of Saturday wasn’t about getting carried away, it was about celebrating the flair and resilience of this young side, it was seeing Pierre Ekwah going from nervous debutant to running the midfield. It’s about seeing a young lad on loan from Manchester United jump into the crowd after scoring, and it’s about living in the moment.

We’ll worry about Tuesday and defying the odds when it comes round, and wherever you’re watching it, whatever you’re doing, have a blast because finally it really does feel as though we are on our way.