This time last year, after losing to Burton and being relegated, I walked out of the stadium feeling totally drained, my love for Sunderland AFC was gone and I wondered why I bothered turning up week after week to watch a load of players, who let’s be frank, didn’t care, we knew it and they did too.
Then one Sunday morning while out with the dog, my phone started going mental, Chris Coleman had been sacked, new owners were imminent. I was over the moon. I didn’t care if the new owners were wealthy, or who they were. I was just happy Ellis Short would be out.
Within a few days we found out that Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven would be running the club and come the final home game against Wolves the whole fan base seemed to have a weight lifted off their shoulders. Everything that felt dead a few weeks previously suddenly came back alive. Speaking to some of my mates before the match, they truly believed going down to League One was best thing that could have happened to us, like Leeds, Leicester, Southampton, Sheff Wed and Wolves before us we were a giant of a club entering the unknown. Cast adrift…
Last summer we all knew that whoever took the manager’s job had a massive task on their hands. We had a squad full off Premier League rejects on crazy wages, players out of contract, no goalkeeper who we trusted, just a few lads determined to turn things around. Cattermole, McGeady, Honeyman, etc, and a core of youth talent.
I’d never heard of Jack Ross. He got to work bringing in Loovens, McLaughlin, Flannagan, Baldwin, O’Nien, McGeouch, Maguire and James. I’d heard of a few of them but never seen any of them play, but these players soon would be playing week in week out and we had to give them time to adjust.
My first taste of the new Sunderland came at Darlington in pre-season. I thought a few lads looked well composed on the ball, especially McGeouch. At Hartlepool we let a daft goal in after 10 mins but settled down and played some neat stuff with Kimpioka thankfully scoring at the end, to save my neighbour, who’s a Poolie fan, winding me up over the fence.
Onto the opening day of the season. Charlton at SOL, lunchtime kick off for the telly, perfect day to bury some bad memories. However, after just a few minutes we give away a penalty, which Lyle Taylor put away. Same old Sunderland! But the comeback was on second half with Maja scoring, and that amazing header from Gooch in added time sent us all home happy.
In the first few months we did concede early goals but found a way to either win, or draw, thanks generally to goals by Josh Maja. While McLaughlin looked solid, it was defensive mistakes that were costing us. Jack Ross tinkered, trying to find an effective formation, which slowly began to work. Losing to Burton (again) was our only defeat in opening few months, there were a few moments when we rode our luck and fought back. Walsall away sticks in my mind, losing 2-0 with a man down and scoring twice in last seven mins to draw level.
By December the league was looking like a two-horse race between us and Portsmouth. We played each other at Fratton Park the week before Christmas, but Loovens being sent off ultimately cost us the match. We had a problem by then, we weren’t killing teams off. If Maja didn’t score, then nobody else was.
Then the whole Maja contact thing seemed to go on forever. In the end he left to joining Marseille Reserves, leaving us with no attacking option. Wyke was injured, partly because we probably rushed him back from his previous injury. We were short up top for a good few games and didn’t sign Will Grigg until deadline day. But we ground out results. Grant Leadbitter came home and added the quality we were lacking.
However, we were still drawing too many games, but we had still scored in every game, but we were increasingly looking nervous. We found it hard at times to break stubborn defences down.
The Checkatrade trophy was an interesting distraction and the trip to Wembley was something I’ll always remember, if not just for experience the night before in Trafalgar Square. We gave everything in the final, just needed to hang on for a bit longer but it wasn’t to be. But it made me proud to be a Sunderland fan again.
Coming up to Easter, we had three home games on the bounce in the space of a week and the game against Coventry sort of summed things up. I took my 4-year-old son for his fist experience of a proper football game (as he said) and within 28 mins we were 3-1 down. The pace of their forward line ran our defenders ragged and although we came back and made it 3-3 at the break, the pressure was all on us. We blew it and lost 5-4. It had been coming for weeks. It was only a matter of when.
Only three defeats may win you titles, but not when they are counter balanced by 18 draws. That’s why I believe we just haven’t quite been good enough. The final three games of the season are going to be tough. Portsmouth again. Joey Barton and Southend.
But I’ve loved every minute of this season. Third tier football has been fun! As fans it’s brought us back together again. We might need another season here, I hope not, but if we do, we’ll come back stronger, galvanised and more determined. But it wouldn’t be Sunderland if it wasn’t that way.