Two managers, no strikers, and the play-offs. The Wise Men Say team look back over the Black Cats’ remarkable return to the Championship.
It was meant to be a season of quiet consolidation. Instead, it ended with the club just falling short of a sensational return to the Premier League.
Sunderland AFC seemingly don’t do ‘uneventful’.
In many ways it was a miraculous campaign. Such was the cruel scale of the injuries for significant spells of it, to the spine of the team too, you would be forgiven for expecting anything other than a relegation scrap. Yet, Tony Mowbray and his youthful crop of largely inexperienced players continually found ways to defy the odds.
In fact, it could be argued that the club’s return to the Championship is best defined in terms of defiance – a stubborn refusal to know when beaten and a rebuttal of anything other than slick, attractive, attacking football even when a more pragmatic style would have been justified, even expected.
Indeed, it is testament to this truly remarkable season that Alex Neil’s name simply became a footnote of it. His departure could so easily have seen complete derailment. Yet, it became a catalyst for further improvement.
It should also be recognised though that despite all the relative success there were also moments that felt like missed opportunities. Self-inflicted ones at that. For example, a failure to secure the necessary strikers across multiple transfer windows surely cannot be repeated again.
Yes, goals continued to be scored and play-offs were secured but one cannot help but wonder what could have been achieved if Mowbray was given all the tools a head coach considers essential. As someone posted on social media recently, Mowbray was frequently left taking a water pistol to a gunfight.
To his credit, despite these challenges his side often came out on top. And, as a result this is a team we can be truly proud of. One who will hopefully grow and improve with the club.
Next season is about further consolidation in the league and Mowbray deserves to build upon all of his good work thus far. There is nothing to suggest that is unattainable as one thing is now certain – this team truly does fight ‘til the end.
Player of the season – Jack Clarke
At the start of the season, I, like countless others, hoped we’d have a flirt with the play-offs before we were sent packing with a comfy mid-table finish.
To have instead worried the top eight for the majority of the year, playing some of the best football you’re likely to see in the division and to actually grab a play-off place. Ridiculous.
In the space of 12 months, we’ve gone from having to battle tooth and nail to claim a play-off spot in League One, to running rings around Championship sides. Impressive enough, but we’ve managed it with three limbs tied behind our back, owing to an injury crisis that would have a daytime TV ad campaign for those who have “been involved in an accident at work” rubbing their thighs in delight.
Results-wise, there are too many highlights, so personal picks would have to be Patrick Roberts* equaliser against Watford, and Ross Stewart in general against Rotherham and Boro at home.
A real point of pride for this season though is that I cannot pick favourites from this team, as I absolutely love the lot of them. Clarke, Amad and Roberts are obvious choices, but if I had to choose from outside the obvious, I’d go for Trai Hume – the man plays like Philipp Lahm and enjoys a challenge that verges on the battery side of rough.
Tony Mowbray deserves all the credit and more for achieving it all with a team of toddlers deserted by the previous manager, and I cannot wait to see what he can do next year.
Player of the Season – Jack Clarke
When I heard about Alex Neil being on the brink of leaving Sunderland, I was six hours in to what became a 12-hour drive back from a summer holiday in Cornwall. And I dramatically declared the season was over to anybody listening, but mostly the 100 people or so with me in the queue for Starbucks in a motorway services somewhere on the M5.
The however many levels of grief that include anger and denial – I’d blasted through most of them between Bristol and Sheffield, and so, by the time we got back into the glorious North East, I had switched to acceptance. I dare say I’d even moved on.
That said, I was firmly of the opinion that the season was done for, that any manager coming in now would be a stopgap and we’d simply just need to stay up now.
However, the imminent appointment of Tony Mowbray, I thought, was an astute one. A safe pair of hands, able to work with the young talent we have at our disposal. A steady hand on the tiller while the club identifies a permanent long-term successor.
Even I, as one of the more optimistic voices when he was given the job, didn’t see THIS coming at all.
Especially with the injuries. Especially with the loss of Ellis Simms, then Ross Stewart, leaving us with no fit number nine except for Joe Gelhardt, who we all know wasn’t ever going to be a number nine.
Then more injuries. Then even more injuries. It was impossible that the good position we’d got to after the 4-1 win down at Wigan could be built on.
The results we managed to put together after this were incredible. And the run of form we went on to qualify for the play-offs, culminating in that 3-0 win at Preston North End – just sublime.
In the end, beating Luton over two legs was a challenge too far, but there’s no shame in that.
The season has given us some moments that will live long in the memory, but the important thing for the club now is to build on it.
I’d hate for the likes of Krijstaan Speakman to speak about the league finish as being some kind of vindication of the failures in bringing in some experience, or to prove the point that we don’t play with a natural number nine anyway.
Because if we think like that, the same thing will happen again. We need options, we need experience to add to this incredible young bunch of players. It’s not too much work. We’re not asking for the earth.
But it’s the difference between a good season and a great season.
Player of the season: Jack Clarke
After a remarkable unbeaten run to secure promotion at the end of the previous season under Alex Neil, I was pretty confident we would not be in a relegation battle this term. But did I expect a late burst into the play-off places, certainly not.
Here at Wise Men Say I’d probably be considered a positive contributor, of course behind my unflappable match day travel companion Jimmy Reay, who always keeps the hipster ale half full. I predicted a tenth place finish which I was actually only three points off in the end, but the achievements of our Tony and his young team feel like they’ve far surpassed that.
The injuries have been unprecedented, with eight starting players commonly out at any one time, which significantly involved the lengthy loss of our goal machine Ross Stewart.
Timing has also been a major problem this year with Everton recalling Ellis Simms, by dragging him out of his Wigan hotel room, only for a managerial change on Merseyside to string out the decision to retain the in-form striker. Stewart then got injured in late January away at Fulham in a cup tie he’d arguably be rested for had Simms been retained on Wearside.
Joe Gelhardt came in, marketed as the answer to our striking problems, but very much a talented no.10. It smacked of the smoke and mirrors back in September when we were told Leon Dajaku and Amad Diallo were out and out strikers. A fresh contract for Stewart and the signing of Simms this summer would certainly be welcomed by myself.
Despite the loss of an entire strike force, goals have not been hard to find for the lads who rarely failed to score both home and away. However if you look deeper into the role of a no.9 and their ability to be a threat at set pieces, be an addition to the defence when defending, the pivot point, and the valve that releases the pressure high up the pitch retaining the ball and splitting defenders… it’s that final point that is crucial.
We have conceded far too many goals this season, and a lot of points at home have been lost from winning positions. Young legs have been a relentlessly positive for us, however there is only so much pressure a young group of players can absorb without some sort of momentary relief. This makes this seasons’ achievements beyond remarkable really.
The recruitment has proved to be canny in terms of Trai Hume, Dan Ballard, Abdoullah Ba and Peirre Ekwah. Jewison Bennette remains a bit of an unknown quantity and may well prove to be a loan candidate next season. For me loanee Eduard Michut has impressed, but the price tag may prove too much if reports are true that Jobe Bellingham will be coming in for a fee. It goes without saying that Amad has been a revelation for us, and from the stands it’s been a real buzz to watch the likes of him, Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts, who can all produce magic on a frequent basis.
Next season will be tougher as the standard of the Championship hasn’t been great in 2022/23, with relegated Watford and Norwich falling way short of their expected targets. Plymouth will be coming up having gained over 100 points this season (Stewart Donald probably predicted that), Ipswich have been goal crazy for months, and three teams from the Premier League with their handsome parachute money will be looking for a short stay in the second tier.
Recruitment is crucial this summer as the team have shown where the bar can be set, so automatics has to be a realistic expectation again.. after many years. Better opposition, bigger crowds, exciting football, it’s great to be a Lads fan right now, and long may this journey continue. It looks like our Tony Mowbray is staying, and that’s the sort of continuity I like to see.
Player of the Season: Jack Clarke