When we were relegated two years ago, I was staggered by how many people knew, without doubt, that we’d be straight back up into the Premier League. A year on and no one had learned the lesson.
‘We’re too good for League One’
‘Too much quality’
‘We’ll win it in March’.
And here we are. In March. And we haven’t won it.
Now don’t get me wrong, as I write I’m still hoping for a league and cup double (or a promotion and cup double). And I still think it’s likely. I still think Luton will do a Newcastle (and I’d love it… love it…) and I think Barnsley have the slightly trickier fixtures than us and we’re right on their shoulder.
What’s weird is that I’m surprisingly relaxed about whatever happens in the next three months. The fear has gone and I’m enjoying football again.
It’s less than a year ago that we were falling off a cliff, in fact we’d fallen and Stewart, Charlie and Tony grabbed our hand.
There was a real possibility that the club could collapse completely, continue its fall through the leagues as Portsmouth did, drift into administration, bankruptcy and end up homeless. I don’t think we’ll ever know how close to that we were. And I don’t want to because it’s the past.
We’ve turned the corner. We’re now moving in the other direction. People have stopped tilting their head when you tell them you’re a Sunderland fan like it’s a personal tragedy requiring their understanding and sympathy. We’re taking 4,500 fans to an away game on a wet and windy Tuesday night. We have a cup final at Wembley to look forward to and (I hope) at worst are looking at a play off for promotion.
Against Barnsley we saw McGeady (seven months ago one of the lazy, in-it-for-the-money lot) tracking back and winning tackles, giving his all with a smile on his face.
We saw Cattermole applauded as captain, strong in the middle of the park, leading the club forwards. Last summer he was abused as an evil, money grabber some fans wanted out of the club. Those same fans are currently leading a campaign to get him a testimonial.
Whether we finish first or seventh from this point, it won’t have been a perfect season but, if the goal was to turn the corner, it’s been a successful one.
If you want, you can point at too many draws or we can point at games unbeaten.
We can point at Ticketmaster or we can point at Chris Waters.
We can linger on how long it’s taken to find a formation that seems to be working or just enjoy that we’ve found it. Hell, a year ago, I was looking at team sheets and thinking ‘well, I suppose we have to play someone’ to wondering which players would be unlucky enough to be left out.
We’ve gone from Camp to McLaughlin.
We’re on target to get over 90 points. No team has ever got more than 90 points in League One and not been promoted. If that happens, fair play to Luton and Barnsley but they had a head start of having enough players to play a game in pre-season.
If it goes to a play off, it’s a lottery, look at 1998 but it wouldn’t make it a bad season from where we started it, hanging off that cliff.
I hate the idea that we’re in the wrong division, too big to be here. The stats show that we were woeful on the pitch for too long and, in the same way as nobody flukes a title over a season, equally no one is relegated (twice) through lack of fortune. We can point at the reasons off the pitch that led to our fate, we can point at why the club structure and fan base lends itself to a higher level, but we are where we are and should try to enjoy the journey back as much as we can, however long it takes.
The bad times are, I think, behind us. This season has closed that off and the future is looking brighter by the day. And that’s why we should leave an away game, wind blasted, nil nil against arguably the best team in the division happy that it’s another step towards the goal, further evidence of our progress, and not boo as some did or call for the managers head. From here on, we’ve got a great chance. Whatever happens over the next eleven (or thirteen or fourteen) games, let’s enjoy it, get behind the lads, and enjoy not being home for tea.
And here’s a thought, maybe the season which has made me fall in love with Saturdays again could end with the ultimate moment of closure, beating Charlton in a play-off final. Who knows? What will be, will be.