The play-offs, eh? Remember all the other previous occasions (six if we’re counting. But, probably best not to) when we convinced ourselves this was our moment? The bad news is we were wrong. James Howells throwing away a hard drive brimming with £4.5million worth of Bitcoin wrong. But, the good news is this time around it’s going to be different.
This, this, is our time.
True, we may have said that before, but let’s just put that to one side. All signs point to victory on Saturday. We can be sure of the win. This writer’s belief is unwavering.
Seventh time is indeed the charm.
And, the reason for this overly optimistic feeling? Well, this it isn’t down to one those intangible feelings that you can’t really put your finger on. Or that fickle mistress ‘hope’. Instead, there are more palpable reasons for this underlying confidence.
Simply, they are: momentum, resilience and Alex Neil. Three reasons we can be confident of victory.
On their own, arguably those components can be enough to see any side though a single big match. Yet, as the Black Cats go into their Wembley weekend, they have all of them. Three special ingredients hitherto missing from earlier attempts that will see us triumph over Wycombe Wanderers and finally lay that playoff hoodoo to rest.
Momentum: Alex Neil has his team flying and, unlike the manner in which we limped into the playoffs under Jack Ross and Lee Johnson, the impetus is firmly with Sunderland AFC. Momentum, as we all know, is a key ingredient in these games; high pressure matches when players’ belief has to be at its peak. There can be no room for the distraction that self-doubt brings. That surely played a part in last season’s defeat to Lincoln in the semis. Two wins from their last 10 matches saw Johnson veer the Black Cats’ season off a cliff. Similarly, despite early promotion confidence under Ross, only one victory from their last seven saw the Black Cats stutter into the playoffs before a crushing Wembley defeat. In contrast, how do 15 games unbeaten sound? Neil has his side riding the crest of a wave and that only needs to roll on for one more match to see us over the line.
Resilience: There’s already been a case made for this here. Neil has transformed the current group into a far tougher proposition. The lads had already shipped 39 goals by early February 2022. Chances of automatic promotion had suffered near fatal damage before the Scot even set foot in SR5. The fact he was able to set his squad up in such a way as to only concede 14 further times by May was remarkable. In addition, the number of late goals Sunderland AFC are scoring of recently is also a key feature in the turnaround. This group keep going. The club’s media team have even made a hash tag out of the ‘til the end mindset that Neil has imbued.
Alex Neil: League One playoff Final? Pah, the Scot, won promotion to the Premier League in the Championship playoffs with Norwich FC. He’s been there, he’s done it, and at the level above. Haven beaten arch-rivals Ipswich and controlling the final against Aitor Karanka’s Middlesbrough almost from beginning to end, Neil understands how to deal with the big occasion and crucially, just what it takes to secure promotion back to the big time.
Finally, if superstitions are your thing then Gareth Ainsworth has just won the League One manager of the month award. A poisoned chalice if ever there was one.
The West end of Wembley Stadium will play host to Sunderland supporters on Saturday too. The last time that happened we won the FA Cup. We’ll be in red and white stripes and have a capacity crowd as well, certainly well in excess of the number Wycombe Wanderers will be bringing with them.
The stars have aligned. Fortune is smiling our way. There can be no excuses this time. None.
These are the reasons Sunderland will finally claw themselves out from this Division 3 hell.
This, this is our time.