With two games of the regular League One season remaining, just three points are needed to secure a play-off position, following Tuesday night’s defeat to Blackpool.
If Sunderland fans had been offered that in the dark days of Phil Parkinson, then I can imagine we would have taken that.
But mere weeks ago we looked good prospects for an automatic promotion place at the expense of either Hull City or Peterborough.
Easter, so often the belweather of many a Football League club’s season, was our last hurrah. The entertaining 3-1 win against Oxford United on Good Friday was the last time we tasted victory, and there’s a real prospect that by the time the 48th anniversary of our 1973 FA Cup final comes around on May 5, we’ll still be on 73 points. Great for #respect, not so much for our chances of getting out of this godforsaken league.
Many compare this season to 2018-19, furiously tweeting ‘JACK ROSS!’ when anything vaguely similar occurs to that campaign where we failed to gain promotion at the first time of asking. And while there are significant differences between these two campaigns – Lee Johnson had to pick up the pieces from Parkinson’s disastrous reign on Wearside whereas Ross shouldered the blame for the entire campaign being one – there are similarities.
However, this doesn’t suggest history is repeating itself, more like there are deep-seated issues in our team that we’ve never fully addressed. And as long as they’re not addressed, we’ll go on getting bad results.
For me, the biggest issue we’ve had since pratfalling into the third tier of English football is goals. “BUT, BUT JOSH MAJA SCORED LOADS AND WE NEVER REPLACED THAT” I hear you scream. “BUT CHARLIE WYKE HAS SCORED 30 GOALS AND AIDEN MCGEADY IS A CHEAT CODE” I can also hear you cry.
The truth is, we didn’t score enough goals when Josh Maja was here. At the time of his January 2019 departure, we had slipped down to fifth in the table, albeit with games in hand, having spent just five out of the 20-odd matchdays in an automatic promotion position.
Our chance creation was terrible, relying on Maja’s remarkable ability to pop up with a goal out of nowhere, or the sublime raw talent of Chris Maguire or McGeady. By the end of the 2018-20 season Maja, long since departed to Bordeaux, was still top scorer with 15, with McGeady contributing 11 goals and the next best return after that coming from goal machine Lee Cattermole with seven.
Fast forward to 2021 and it’s a similar story. We’re relying on one goalscorer in Charlie Wyke, largely assisted by McGeady, and our opposition have worked out that if you stop one or both of them, then they stop us scoring.
Defensively, our stats are impressive. For a long time we had the meanest defence in the division. But this recent capitulation has put paid to that. Lots of blame has been put on Lee Burge and the makeshift defence. However, if you’re doing the business at the top end of the pitch, you don’t have to worry too much about what goes on at the back. Our lack of variety is startling.
After Wyke’s 25 league goals, the next best contributor is Grant Leadbitter, who has netted seven this season. Max Power’s five puts him ahead of a gaggle of Black Cats such as Maguire all on four goals.
We’ve scored 66 goals this season, 11 and 10 fewer than Hull City and Peterborough respectively, one greater than Lincoln City who leapfrogged us on Tuesday.
I said on the podcast the other week that you couldn’t really separate us, Hull and Peterborough. That’s obviously wrong. We haven’t lost to either of them this season but we couldn’t beat them either.
Crucially, they’ve scored goals from more than one source. Peterborough have the league’s top scorer in Jonson Clarke Harris with 29 goals, but Sammie Szmodics is behind him with 14, and Siriki Dembele has 10 goals.
Hull’s top scorer Mallik Wilks has 19 goals, but has been given a close run by Josh Magennis with 17, while Keane Lewis-Potter’s 12 goals is a more-than-worthy contribution.
They’re clear of the other 22 teams in the league simply because they’ve blown the competition away, especially in Peterborough’s case where they’ve ruthlessly capitalised on a team’s failings – sticking seven past an absolutely rancid Accrington, who then waltzed into the Stadium of Light and somehow picked up a point after a 3-3 draw. Had we stuck away the chances we had at 2-0, that would have been a different story.
Our season is littered with what could have been. Our squad is made up of nearly-men.
Time and time again we become reliant on one or two players and pin all our hopes on them. It’s foolish and unrealistic to expect that to yield results over a 46-game season.
I recently praised Johnson’s pragmatism in bringing McGeady out of the cold and the obvious results that brought, but it is Johnson’s inability to find a different way to score goals and ultimately to win games when that Plan A is not working that has been the biggest failure for Sunderland this season.
That’s why we are where we are. And we just need to hope now that something, anything can click and we can scramble through the play-offs and get out of this division for once and for all.