Sunderland AFC Throwback: A Lot Has Changed in 16 Months

Michael Lough returns to October 2021, and an ominous day for a certain Lee Johnson.

It is somewhat typical of Sunderland that in the season we finally escaped the clutches of England’s third tier, we also endured the most humiliating results in our history.

The very nature of us being in League One lent itself to new lows, but Lee Johnson somehow managed to plumb even deeper than the depths of routinely failing to beat the likes of Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town by not just losing to Third Division opposition, but getting absolutely battered by them.

In the 2021/22 season, we lost 4-0 to Portsmouth, 3-0 to Sheffield Wednesday, 5-1 at Rotherham United and a staggering 6-0 at Bolton Wanderers under Streaky Lee’s management.

This ultimately cost him his job and we have never looked back since, but the humiliation against tonight’s opponents Rotherham arguably summed up everything about Johnson’s managerial tenure on Wearside.

His infamous streaks were baffling and frustrating in equal measure. With some managers a bad run of form is quite easy to preempt as a result of gradually worsening performances and the odd poor result here and there. Not so under the former Bristol City manager’s guidance; it really was a case of feast or famine.

He made a slow start to life at the club, winning just four of his first 11 matches and drawing five, before a humiliating 2-1 defeat at Shrewsbury Town led to some early mutterings about his suitability for the role.

We then went and beat high flying Doncaster Rovers 4-1 in our next game and embarked on a 12 -game unbeaten run which put us in a great position to achieve automatic promotion. We then won just one of our final eight games.

Even the most pessimistic of Sunderland supporters would have struggled to anticipate such a collapse. In the two games prior to our first defeat of this winless sequence, we beat Oxford United 3-1 on Good Friday and came from behind to gain a credible draw against promotion rivals, Peterborough United.

This horrific end to the campaign, combined with the failure to beat Lincoln City in the play-off semi-finals, led to further concerns about his future, but Streaky Lee lived to fight another day and started the following season by winning 14 games out of 17.

Sure, we’d lost to Portsmouth in a game that more resembled water polo than football, but we responded well to that by beating Lincoln and Manchester United under 21s in the Papa Johns Trophy, before dispatching Gillingham and Crewe Alexandra in the league. Defeat at home to bogeymen Charlton Athletic followed but we got straight back on the horse by beating Queens Park Rangers on penalties to progress to the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup.

As we headed to South Yorkshire, then, there was little indication of what was to follow, despite Rotherham racing into a tenth-minute lead through Michael Smith. Ross Stewart levelled soon after and things were briefly looking up, but just as we were thinking about heading in at half-time level, Freddie Ladapo struck to send the hosts ahead.

It was soon 3-1 to Rotherham as Michael Ihiekwe powered in a Shane Ferguson corner, and things went from bad to worse as Aiden McGeady was sent off for sheer petulance, leaving us with little prospect of making a comeback. Further goals from Ladapo and Smith compounded Sunderland’s misery and Rotherham leapfrogged us in the table.

That defeat was part of a disastrous sequence that saw us win just two games in nine in all competitions. Johnson was to have one final good streak, where he picked up four wins in five games over the festive period and had us at the top of the league on New Year’s Day. In true Lee Johnson form, we then won just one of our next five, and the end of his reign came following a 6-0 humiliation at Bolton.

Having thoroughly depressed myself writing this, let’s hope the Lads can cheer me up by extending our unbeaten run away from home to 11 matches, which is a decidedly better streak than those others mentioned here.