As Max Power thunked home a certain winner at London Road, I did a little jig. I was not, sadly, one of the 4,000 red and whites in Peterborough on Monday; temptation, as ever, greeted me with open arms but, for once, fearing the wrath of a partner whom I’ve been away from for far too much of the past month, I resisted.
That little jig in the front room came at the end of a solid performance capped by a deserved winner. Having battered on the door for most of the first half, Power’s strike had provided our just desserts. No matter that it came rather out of the blue, after the manager had shifted to 4-4-2 and stymied our previous flow. Three more wins and we’re up.
Or so I, so we, thought. Having looked fairly assured for much of the game, taking the lead acted as a catalyst for us to collectively go to pot (to use the scientific term), and a Peterborough side that had previously looked as threatening as a Luke O’Nien smile suddenly took on the form of Barcelona. Given roughly eight minutes to defend that lead once all the celebrations had died down, we lasted two. It could have been even worse. In the remaining moments of injury time, both Marcus Maddison and Matt Godden, the man who nabbed that equaliser, had good chances to win it.
Chances are you know this already and chances are you know what it means: automatic promotion is no longer in Sunderland’s hands. Win our remaining three games, something which is not, despite what the doom merchants now proclaim, beyond the realm of possibility and it still mightn’t be enough. From shaping our own destiny, we are now reliant on someone getting something off a Barnsley side that have welcomed their top scorer back into the fold when everyone believed him out for the season; Blackpool, Bristol Rovers, do us a favour, eh?
What does this mean for Sunderland, both in terms of this season and beyond? The first conclusion to draw is that we, well, shouldn’t draw conclusions. The events of this year, alas, even the events of just the last month or so, should act as a warning to people: don’t assume anything until it’s over. The Coventry City debacle had plenty condemning us to the play-offs, while the swatting aside of Doncaster Rovers brought about many a volte-face. Monday’s draw has shifted people’s outlook another 180 degrees, but don’t bet against there being another twist yet.
Should those last three games be won and should Barnsley slip up, the current concerns and complaints will swiftly fade. Promotion, however it may arrive, has always been this season’s aim. From the moment Stewart Donald rode in from nowhere (or Eastleigh, which mightn’t be too dissimilar), the expectation was this was a side aiming for an immediate return to the Championship. If that is achieved, no matter how late or by what method, it will be mission accomplished.
That remains true even if ascension comes by way of the dreaded play-offs. Neither my wallet nor my ticker could stand another trip to Wembley but if we get there, win, and I live to tell the tale, the fact the owners have slowly shifted the goalposts from aiming for automatic promotion to being satisfied with a play-off berth will neither register nor particularly matter.
But what if we don’t go up? What if the signing of Will Grigg in January, for a third tier record, no less, doesn’t end up propelling us back to whence we came? There will be angst, outcry and no little apportioning of blame. Not without good reason, either. For all the good this season has brought, both on the pitch and off it, another season ‘down here’ would represent failure on the part of Jack Ross and his players and, ultimately, the ownership too. Would I sack Ross? No. Would I be concerned that we will be weakened next year and getting back up might prove ever more difficult? Absolutely.
Yet for the meantime those are hypotheticals. What does seem certain is that, whatever happens across the course of the next week and half or so, or even the next month, tumult will be the order of the day this summer. The Sun newspaper’s frequent stories about would-be buyers of the club may not win accolades for accuracy, but there is plenty truth in the tale that there are live buyers actively sniffing around. The stories will not cease; indeed, they will ramp up once the football itself stops.
Similarly, while Stewart Donald’s swift rebuttals have been made in the hope of quelling any such rumours, it should surprise no one that the owner too is prepared to move on if the deal is right. Indeed, he has done his fair share of courting such a deal. Business is business and, for all he and his cohorts have been at pains to talk up the emotive side of football, money still shouts louder than most other voices.
That is likely to engage our interest in the near future but, for now, there remain at least 270 minutes of football to be played. For all the misery that accompanied that late blow on Monday, it shouldn’t be forgotten this side has consistently shown itself to be made of stern stuff. Far from “bottling it,” as some have bewilderingly suggested, this Sunderland side has continually dug deep; look no further than a Wembley final where they were outplayed for 75 minutes yet still mustered a late leveller.
Now we come to face the opponents of that day again. Portsmouth will rock up on Wearside this Saturday full of beans and full of recent wins, fancying themselves to have a psychological edge after the events of a month ago. Then it will be on to Fleetwood Town and the spite of a certain Joey Barton, before a trek to Essex and Roots Hall, the scene of one of Sunderland’s lowest ebbs 13 years ago but hopefully a setting for our revival in the present day.
Following Sunderland often takes on the guise of a Shakespearean tragedy: those in command, initially assumed wise and flawless, wind up committing a terrible error. This season might not have been flawless but it has certainly looked more promising than recent ones. It would be a terrible shame if that was to go to waste. But we do not and cannot know what the next few weeks will bring. Perhaps it is best left to Shakespeare himself to have the last words.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Once more.