In a season where half the clubs in the Football League, sorry, the EFL, have been chasing a play-off place, we’ve got one. Didn’t even have to sweat some to get it either. However, as the phrase “we go again” is hawked around again, my reaction is: “Bastard unfortunately.”
The exploits of the last couple of games dumped us to fifth, a position we looked down on for so long. I won’t dwell on the Southend shambles, television did nicely with that one. However, Fleetwood was a grim experience in its own right, fortunately witnessed by a lesser number of us. Positives? Well, the weather was canny and there was some good pre-match craic, although as I was waiting for it to unfold I found myself hoodwinked into calling a cab for Lancashire’s Radgiest Woman, who had the attitude of Biffa Bacon’s mum and the looks to match. She seemed to think I had a working knowledge of every street in the town as she wobbled away from me having put her order in. “F**king Odder, I’ve just f***king told yer antah? Never mind the f***king number, the driver’ll know me when he turns up,” she barked. He recognised her all right. You could see the fear in his eyes as he pulled into the car park. Walking to the ground I imagined a Crimewatch reconstruction in a few months ending with the words: “Police investigating the brutal slaying of a taxi driver are seeking a man, possibly a Sunderland fan, who may have important information about the murderer.” Gulp.
Anyway, instead of copping for one of the fancied play-off teams in a one-off contest to go up, we’ve ended up getting two of them and losing home advantage in the second leg of the first challenge. Even Leeds and Mansfield, the other sides going into the post-season feeling a bit flat, haven’t done that. Well done us...
That said, is getting the home game out of the way first really a bad thing, given our inability to see things out in front of our own supporters? Warning: Say yes and you might not like the un-FTM-like upbeat spin I’m trying to put on this piece. I should add, I’ve got a more than sneaky feeling things aren’t going to work out how we’d like them to but I’m not throwing in the towel just yet.
It seems crackers that we’d have got automatic promotion with seven more points, maybe even six. When Luton and Barnsley were flying, it looked like 95 might not have been enough to nail down a place in the top two. Turns out it would have won us the league. Despite the Coventry calamity, if Pompey’s keeper hadn’t had a blinder in the next game at ours we’d have got the win our performance deserved. Not only would it have meant an unbeaten season at home for the first time in years, it would have maintained our momentum and been followed by convincing wins at Fleetwood and Southend. In my head anyway...
The way the season petered out is a concern but go back to April and we’d lost only twice in 40 games. That says we’re not that bad, of course we’re not. But the league table never lies. Only the most blinkered red and white can argue with any conviction that our placing is harsh. I can recall several seasons, notably in the 80s, when our end of season placing didn’t tally with where I thought we should be. But I was young and naive then. Anyone who fancies arguing the toss about where we should be this season is forgetting the consistently rotten defensive performances. Factor in these and you’ll see fifth arguably flatters us.
More positivity. But for two late goals, which ultimately didn’t matter, we’d have missed out on automatic promotion having lost just three games in 46. I’m not sure when that last happened but I'm certain only the latest edition of the Mackem dictionary is more Sunderlandy.
The club are understandably trying to keep spirits up, and no doubt get a few more tickets shifted, by announcing Jack Ross will have a full-strength squad for the first hurdle. That’s good to hear, although how the gaffer will play his cards is an interesting one. There have been a lot of games and he’s been wise to rotate his squad but sometimes there seems to have been a bit too much fettling going on. Whatever, being able to call on Lee Cattermole, Aiden McGeady and Duncan Watmore would give our push a real boost. Even if one or two of them are only deemed fit enough for 15-20 minutes, it might give us some late momentum, something which has seriously been lacking this season. I’m told Stewart Donald might not be a fan of win bonuses but hopefully there are some incentives for the players to win get us promotion. And if there aren’t, he should do something about that as a matter of urgency. Sure, the players should be motivated enough but in the absence of proving a point against an opponent you never liked, a former team, or fans you’ve got an issue with, cash counts for a lot – whether it’s for a clean sheet, a win, or a bigger prize. It might mean that even in games where our gaffer and players are out of answers, they’re all determined to keep going and find a solution.
As Leeds stunk the place out at Ipswich, I heard the argument that it’s good to get the badness out of the system in a game that doesn’t matter, rather than the play-offs. Fair enough. I don’t buy it but it’s worth remembering that at least we’ve not had three bad performances in a row this season.
And here’s another positive. If we don’t go up, we won’t be looking at a scrap for survival with a mediocre squad in a highly competitive Championship awash with our rejects – although definitely not John Egan and maybe not Conor Hourihane. With no guarantees of an injection of cash to strengthen, we might find ourselves back in League One this time next year. We’ve done enough celebrating finishing one or two places above the drop zone recently. Please, not again.
So, SR5, Hampshire, south London, South Yorkshire, north London, wherever the next couple of weeks take us, pray for a happy ending that you can be a part of. But don’t slag those who aren’t. Sure, some are struggling to keep the faith and have the choice but others are skint and some have all manner of shit going on. Don’t point the finger, we all have the same goal.