Throughout Sunderland’s four-year stint in League One, there were a number of moments that could be classed as ‘rock bottom’.
During that time we lost to a Leicester City Academy side, failed to beat Gillingham in four attempts during the 2019-20 season and after not playing them in a competitive fixture for more than 100 years, we made five visits to Accrington to stand on an uncovered terrace.
However, you could easily make a case for a 1-1 draw between Sunderland and Burton Albion in February 2022 being the bleakest result of all.
Not only did it mean we were still yet to beat Burton Albion at home after five attempts, but our prospects of promotion looked about as likely as Phil Parkinson making a proactive substitution.
As I walked home from the match, I remember feeling a numbness that had nothing to do with the temperature on a Wearside winter night. We may have scored a late equaliser, but I scarcely cared and I couldn’t even cling on to the crumb of comfort I should have felt at remaining in a play-off place.
We may have been sixth in the league, but we sat 10 points behind second placed Wigan, having played three games more and we were a quite frankly hilarious 16 points adrift of table-toppers Rotherham, who had a game in hand over us.
Wycombe and Sheffield Wednesday both sat just a point behind us, with one and two games in hand on Sunderland respectively.
Less than two months previously, things had looked rosy, we had overcome some indifferent autumnal form to sit top of the league heading into the new year after a 5-0 win at home to Sheffield Wednesday.
Bye Bye Johnson, and oNe LaSt DaNcE
Things soon unravelled and, less than a month after being crowned manager of the month, Lee Johnson was dismissed off the back of losing 6-0 to Bolton Wanderers.
Johnson won just one of his remaining five games and his sacking was very much made with salvaging our fading hopes of clinching an automatic promotion place in mind, but what followed was two weeks of utter chaos.
The lads went into nostalgia overdrive as firstly Jermain Defoe came back for ‘one last dance’ which would consist of seven appearances and no goals before he decided to retire from football, while the club publicly flirted with Roy Keane for a fortnight before appointing Alex Neil.
In the intervening period we suffered humiliating defeats to Doncaster Rovers and Cheltenham Town and things looked all but lost.
However, just as things reached the point of no return, the lads stunned us all, Wigan were comfortably beaten 3-0 and from then on never looked back and remained unbeaten until the end of the season, a run which stretched to 13 games.
Sunderland suddenly looked resolute at the back, with new signing Danny Batth forming a formidable partnership with Bailey Wright, Nathan Broadhead supplemented Ross Stewart’s goals and the signings of Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke looked inspired.
We didn’t always make it easy for ourselves and late winners became almost routine, as we picked up 11 points through goals we scored in the last ten minutes of games. This impressive run led to us securing a play-off place on the final day after beating Morecambe 1-0.
Play-off glory, at last
This set up a mouthwatering tie with Sheffield Wednesday, which attracted a crowd of more than 45,000 for the first leg at the Stadium of Light who witnessed the lads win 1-0 thanks to Stewart’s goal on the stroke of halftime.
The time between the two ties was a matter of days, but that weekend on Wearside felt like the longest in human history and there was an increasing feeling that whoever emerged victorious from the return game at Hillsborough would go on to get promoted.
What followed was 100 minutes of pure torture and as is traditional, we decided to make life even harder from ourselves when Wednesday equalised with 20 minutes of normal time remaining.
Just as we all attempted to mentally prepare ourselves for extra-time, Roberts popped up with the tie-winning goal and Sunderland were off to Wembley.
I don’t need to tell you what happened next of course, the lads outplayed Wycombe on the day and banished all of the ghosts of Wembley visits past by winning in front of fans at the iconic stadium for the first time in 49 years.
Tears were shed as Stewart slotted home to make it 2-0 with little over ten minutes remaining and those who managed to hold it together through that, generally succumbed to an emotional outpouring at full-time.
Back in the big time
Sunderland then lived happily ever after and made steady progress under Alex Neil’s management over the next few years before their subsequent promotion…ah. Never mind, it wouldn’t be the club we know and love if there wasn’t utter turmoil every now and again.
Things went smoothly enough over the summer months, with Jack Clarke, Leon Dajaku and Patrick Roberts committing their long-term future to the club and they were soon joined by Dan Ballard, Aji Alese, Alex Bass, and Ellis Simms.
Our return to the Championship was witnessed by more than 40,000 at The Stadium of Light and a Jack Clarke opener looked likely to be enough to earn all three points, before Coventry equalised late on.
We didn’t have to wait long for our maiden victory however, as a brace from new boy Simms and a Ross Stewart winner got us up and running.
A frustrating draw with QPR was followed by a defeat to Sheffield United but performances continued to provide encouragement and a win at Stoke had us sitting pretty with just one defeat in our opening five games.
The following Thursday, Alex Neil was slightly late for his pre-Norwich press conference; a few people suggested that it was because he was on his way to Stoke for talks. How we all laughed, but nah seriously, he was very much on his way to Stoke.
‘Why can’t we just have nice things?’ We all cried as our most popular manager since Big Sam sat in the stands watching Stoke beat Blackburn while we entertained Norwich.
We lost 1-0 that day as murmerings that Tony Mowbray was in line to replace Neil intensified. At first glance this did not appear to be an appointment to get pulses racing but Mowbray steadily built Blackburn Rovers into a solid Championship outfit following promotion in 2018 and had a good track record of developing young players.
To the club’s credit, lessons from the debacle of Lee Johnson’s departure had clearly been learnt and Mowbray was in the dugout in time to oversee our 3-0 win over Rotherham. At half time, new signings Jewison Bennette, Eduoard Michut, Abdoullah Ba, and Amad Diallo were paraded on the pitch.
Again, things appeared to be going reasonably smoothly as Carl Winchester’s deadline day loan move to Shrewsbury was the only activity undertaken before the window shut.
A defeat to Middlesbrough followed, but more worryingly Ross Stewart was injured in the warm up, ruling himself out for three months, leaving us with just one fit striker.
Just over a week later, we were depleted even further as Ellis Simms was forced off with an injury in the first half at Reading. Ironically, we then went on to score three excellent goals including a goal of the season contender from Jack Clarke following a beautiful team move.
The upshot, however, was that we had to play seven games without a recognised striker and our form suffered as a result, we won just once without Simms and Stewart in the team and despite playing some excellent football at times, we struggled to break teams down.
Since Simms cam back into the side, we’ve had a great upturn in results, winning five games in our past nine and him and Stewart have scored nine goals between them.
Given the challenges we have faced so far this season, to sit fourth in the Championship is a remarkable achievement and Mowbray and the recruitment team deserve a great deal of credit.
Amad has been a revelation, Ballard and Alese have largely impressed when they’ve played and a number of the players we brought in during our League One days have seamlessly made the step up to Championship level.
The likes of Ba, Michut and Bennette have made a limited impact but they have done enough when given the opportunity/been match fit to give us hope for the future.
It’s been a hell of a year for Sunderland, we’ve had three permanent managers, won a promotion and find ourselves in with a genuine shout of making the playoffs.
Oh, just as I finished writing this it has emerged that Everton have recalled Ellis Simms, so it’s heartening to learn that as always, just as Sunderland look to have a bit of tranquility something has to jump up and punch us in the face.
Happy New Year!