If Sunderland are going to get out of League One this year, they will be doing so against all of the odds.
The Black Cats’ impressively catastrophic end to the season resembled a clown car comically exploding, beeping and parping as Lee Johnson attempted to wrestle control, only to see both axles slip from under the chassis and leave the beleaguered manager sitting in the middle of the road with only the steering wheel in his hands.
Six points from a possible 24 gave the Black Cats a paltry return of 0.75 PPG from their final eight games of the regular League One campaign.
No side has gone into the League One play-offs in worse form in recent history. A cursory glance around the rest of the EFL suggests a similar picture.
Over the last decade, only Sunderland have averaged less than a point per game from their final eight fixtures of the regular season.
Much in the same way Ron Burgundy said to his faithful pet dog Baxter after he ate an entire wheel of cheese in Anchorman, “I’m not even mad, that’s amazing.”
Wednesday night’s opponents, Lincoln City, picked up 14 points from their run-in, but it’s Oxford that have the momentum behind them going into their game against Blackpool, having racked up an impressive 18 points to snatch that final play-off spot at the expense of perennial League One losers Portsmouth.
But, what I will say next should come as some comfort to Sunderland fans who, at this point, are tearing out what little hair they have remaining after three seasons in this absolute shitshow of a league.
There’s a general suggestion that the teams in form are the ones that are successful in the play-offs, and, having looked over the last decade of League One league tables, it’s not strictly true.
Last season is the biggest exception of the lot, after Wycombe voted to end the season but miraculously didn’t have any issues at all in playing another three play-off games to somehow propel themselves and their INXS tribute band frontman of a manager in Gareth Ainsworth into the Championship. And I will be one of the first to welcome them back to League One in August. How’d that work out for you lads?
As we all know, Wycombe were not the form team going into the play-offs, with their 12 points from their final eight games the lowest of the four that found themselves in positions 2 to 6 based on the PPG from across the entire season.
Fleetwood Town’s 18 points from their sprint finish, curtailed by COVID-19 of course, was the best return of the four but they fell to pieces in their play-off semi-final.
Before that, Millwall in 2017, Barnsley in 2016, and Huddersfield way back in 2012, were all successful play-off winners despite having the worst form going into the knockout games. Huddersfield only picked up ten points in their final eight games under Simon Grayson – remember him! – having binned off Lee Clark earlier in the season.
In 2014, Leyton Orient and Rotherham contested the final having dispatched Preston and Peterborough at the semi-final stage, despite their comparatively worse form.
In fact, over the last ten seasons, the team with the best form going into the play-offs has won at Wembley just three times.
Sunderland’s capitulation at the end of this season has been remarkable, and it does represent a huge opportunity missed considering how close they were to getting into the automatic places at the start of April.
It’s not good enough, but we’ve carped on about that enough, and nobody will know that an improvement is needed more than Lee Johnson and his squad.
Despite this form, Sunderland deserve their place in the play-offs just as much as any of the other three teams. They are in there on merit, it’s not a lucky dip. We have beaten Lincoln and beaten them well. You don’t turn into a bad side overnight after all.
As a club we have upset the record books before – just look at our Great Escapes. As the old cliché goes, records are there to be broken.
We are one of four teams and we have a shot. Let’s make it our best shot.