Here's ALS's safc.com column for this week with most of us still licking our post Wembley wounds...
Wembley, the second coming, might have been less than two weeks ago, but to me, and I suspect many others as well, it seems like light years since that last-minute agony.
After the seemingly relentless pressure of the season, it’s almost a blessed relief to have no match on the horizon, and perhaps now, with a week’s rest, it's the time to think back over what’s happened since August without the raw emotion generated by the immediate post-match blues.
61 games makes for a long, hard season for players and fans alike – in fact, anyone involved with the club will have found the latter part of it particularly gruelling, what with form and results tailing off a bit, culminating in the ending of our promotion dreams in London.
While many openly stated back in August that reaching the play-offs was a realistic target, tagging along just off the top spot for more than six months boosted those expectations, and automatic promotion became the target – and quite rightly so.
The Checkatrade Trophy adventure provided both impetus and a distraction, and depending on your outlook, it was either a good or a bad thing. It gave us a Wembley weekend that perhaps detracted from our second visit in terms of excitement and novelty, but it also gave us a handful of games in hand which initially looked like providing the points to bridge the gap between ourselves and the top of the table, but, ultimately, were not taken advantage of, and play-offs it was.
Had we tootled along in mid-table for most of the season then arrived in the top six thanks to a storming run of form, and some swashbuckling wins, we’d have gone into the final against Charlton on a massive high. But we arrived there after a loss in form and a run of poor results, so we were understandably a bit flat on qualifying for the final, despite the lift provided by seeing off Portsmouth.
Was it a disastrous season, as some have claimed? Absolutely not. Statistically, it was our lowest-ever league finish, but, also statistically, we won 24 more points (85) than in the previous two seasons combined (61), won one more game than the previous three seasons combined, and scored 80 goals – nine more than the two previous seasons combined – by finding the net in all but one league game.
For those reasons alone, it was a far better season than either of the two which preceded it – oh, and we didn’t get relegated, which was an added bonus. Failing to achieve promotion, automatic or otherwise, is a massive disappointment, but it is by no means a disaster.
Had things not changed in terms of the off-field situation, there was every possibility that we’d have suffered another drop, or, worse still, simply folded. 'That’d never happen to us', I hear some say, but it very nearly happened to other 'big' clubs, so who’s to say we wouldn’t be the one to finally give way?
Look what’s happened to Bolton – they’ve followed us down, and will start the new campaign already in danger of relegation thanks to a points deduction.
Why didn’t we succeed in achieving promotion, automatic or otherwise? There’s no shortage of people who’ll give you an opinion on that one. Too many draws, not enough clean sheets, failure to hold on to a lead, failure to kill off teams when we’ve got them on the ropes, and so on.
Another thing that several people have mentioned to me is that we played too much football – we were too nice. Look at how other teams achieved their goals: most did it by ditching the football and sticking the boot in - to put it bluntly, targeting key players like McGeady and O’Nien.
We, at times, were too honest – just look at how often Portsmouth players went to ground with no contact, or had the man furthest from the ball take the throw in. Ironic, really, considering the dodgy red cards given to Ozturk and Power.
Maybe we should sign a few really big blokes, like AFC Wimbledon to name but one, to give us the physical edge. Another maybe to join all the other maybes alongside the ifs and buts that the season left us with.
One thing that can’t be argued about, though, is the 'fan engagement', as supporter loyalty is known as these days.
Last summer, we asked for our club back, we got it back, and we turned up in increased numbers, with the matchday experience becoming enjoyable once again, whatever the result - unlike so much of recent seasons.
The negativity and acceptance of our inevitable failure has gone, and we travelled to clubs that were genuinely pleased to see us - a big following and the cash that generates always helps - instead of going to places where they simply took us for granted and looked down their noses at us.
Next season we, the fans, will show that Sunderland is for life, not just for the season when things changed, and that the positive mood on the terraces will remain.
Disappointed? Yes. Should have done better? Yes. Time to look forward rather than back? Yes. Downhearted? A bit, but that will pass. Already planning the trip to South Shields on July 11th? You bet.
The dust doesn’t stay settled on Wearside for very long.