Sunderland FC: when did times last feel so good?

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More points than anyone else in the EFL. More goals than anyone else in the EFL. No side won more games in the EFL. Admittedly, failure to get promoted grants Sunderland the advantage of being a top-end League One side for both halves of the year, but still, on a game-by-game basis, 2021 was a good year for The Black Cats.

Which seems an odd thing to say given the before-mentioned failure to go up, bottling automatic promotion before failing to look interested in a first leg play-off defeat to Lincoln City.

4-0 at Portsmouth, 5-1 at Rotherham, 3-0 at Sheffield Wednesday, a second FA Cup exit at home to Mansfield in as many years and what seemed like countless turgid performances which have left supporters sometimes quite comprehensively calling for manager Lee Johnson’s head.

And yet Wearside woke up on New Year’s Day with its team top of the league and struggling to recall when times last felt so good. 

2021 was a good year for the Black Cats

The year ended with the club’s best result in the three-and-a-half seasons since dropping to the depths of the third division. The 5-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday at the Stadium of Light could not have been a more different game to the reverse fixture at Hillsborough in November.

In fact, it was so different it was almost the same, but the two teams appeared to have swapped kits. In each, one moved the ball with great confidence, carved out openings with ease and clinically took chances while the other, well, were rubbish.

Wednesday’s early season enthusiasm for adventure in the weird and wonderful world of Accrington Stanley, Shrewsbury Town and Crewe Alexandra seems to have been well and truly extinguished by the realisation that the big club’s sentence in League One is rarely just a year. 

Sunderland themselves, Portsmouth and Ipswich will all cheerily tell them that they are here forever. But for Lee Johnson’s side, it feels as if forever might be ready to end.

Often, the harshest lessons are the best ones. Sunderland’s 5-1 quarter-final defeat at Arsenal shortly before Christmas was right in that category. First, bar an opening twenty minutes where completing a pass was cause for celebration, the approach to the game was admirable and largely successful.

The former Bristol City boss has a way he wants to play, and was not about to change for the likes of Cedric and Mohamed Elneny. Sunderland passed the ball well, and got their rewards with a well-crafted goal, calmly taking advantage of numerous acre-sized holes in the Arsenal backline.

 Second, and almost more impressively, was the authority with which The Lads swept aside Doncaster Rovers on their return to league action. The caveat being that Doncaster appear to fancy a crack at the League Two title next season, but nonetheless the 3-0 win showed that this young team was in no way perturbed by its thumping a week earlier.

It feels as if forever might be about ready to end

The afternoon belonged to Elliot Embleton, the young playmaker returning to the side after a number of weeks on the bench to cap an excellent performance with a smartly taken goal.

Later in the week, Alex Pritchard shone against Sheffield Wednesday, showing the fleetness of foot and lightness of touch that led then-Premier-League Huddersfield to spend over £11million on him just three years ago.

Add to that the press-proof Dan Neil, who has gone from a 19-year-old rabbit-in-the-headlights as makeshift left-back on opening day to surely the best player in the league on New Year’s Day. Of course, this is plus Lynden Gooch, the highly talented Bayern Munich youngster Leon Dajaku and the man they call the Loch Ness Drogba, Ross Stewart – League One’s top goalscorer. Sunderland have a young, technically excellent League One team.

At the back, the apparent plan to play a whole season with a defence full of children was somewhat abandoned after injuries to the impressive Dennis Cirkin and Niall Huggins. But the apparent crisis at full-back allowed Carl Winchester to grow into being, along with Neil, Sunderland’s best performer so far this term.

The desire to play Winchester in his natural central midfield berth led to the recall of Bailey Wright – divisive among supporters but very much trusted by a manager who worked with him at Ashton Gate – who to his credit adapted seamlessly from centre-back to right-back.

A couple of parts of the fresh-faced backline have become immovable fixtures in the Sunderland team. There was quite a lot of googling of Callum Doyle’s age when he first arrived out of stubborn refusal to accept a player that size, with that comfort on the ball, could possibly be 17.

These days, he is at the grizzly old age of 18 and remains calm and composed as ever. It was reasonable to expect intermittent struggles over the season given the Manchester City loanee’s tender years. But with the potential exception of a week of humiliation in South Yorkshire at Rotherham and Sheffield Wednesday where the whole team were as bad as each other aside, Doyle has looked utterly unbothered by almost everything a league full of centre-forwards of all shapes and sizes – apart from the ones under 6 foot 2.

Behind him, Ron-Thorben Hoffman, a veritable pensioner at 22, has been a commanding presence between the sticks since arriving from Bayern Munich. Comfortable with crosses, happy with the ball at his feet and a good shot-stopper, the German rapidly became an assuring presence in the side, and provided one of the best moments of the season with his remarkable triple-save in the home win over Ipswich.

If the wheels stay firmly attached to the red and white bandwagon, it should be some pace to catch.

Tying it all together, Tom Flanagan. Ungainly, uncompromising and awkward, and yet a Northern Ireland international who played the full 90 in a clean sheet against Italy and is having the season of his life. He relishes in playing the role of the manager of Sunderland’s defensive child day-care service.

A stalwart of Sunderland’s time in League One, Flanagan has been written off, been part of failed teams, disgraceful teams and depressingly ordinary teams, but it is testament to his strength of character that his importance is once again huge as The Black Cats mount their most convincing run at promotion yet.

As the season rolls into 2022 spirits are high. For once, Sunderland are out of all the cups and have 21 games between them and an almighty title party in that most League One of places on final day – Morecambe.

The key difference this time is Sunderland are not chasing, but pacesetting. Bristol City fans called Johnson ‘Streaky Lee’ for his propensity to win and win and win and then lose and lose and lose. 

Provided that prophecy does not come true and the wheels stay firmly attached to the red and white bandwagon, it should be some pace to catch.

And for surely the first time ever I have got through a Sunderland article without mention of the man on who all hope has rested for the previous three years. Come April, fit again, enter left stage to write the final lines of the League One script – Aiden McGeady.

Image: Dom Fellowes via Flickr

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