Very few would have predicted a campaign like it for Sunderland. A top-six finish after four years of struggle and strife in League One, so plaudits must go to former Aston Villa midfielder Lee Hendrie for hitting the nail on the head.
The Sky Sports pundit had the Black Cats down to finish in the top-six come the end of the season, having won the League One play-off final so comfortably last time out. The majority, if not all, Sunderland supporters would have been content with a year of consolidation, but as the season wore on, optimism rightly grew.
Speaking back in June, Hendrie told Sky Sports: “I’ve got them in my top-six. The way I look at Sunderland is that they’ve been out of the Championship and they’re destined for top flight football.
“It’s taken some time. They’ve had to change managers. Alex Neil’s come in and done a brilliant job – finally got them into the Championship.
“I do feel this is going to be a springboard for them I really do. I just think a football club or that stature and size, the fans, their home form is going to be so key for them this season. When you’re getting 35,000 plus in the Championship, not many sides get that, so I do think that’s an extra man for a football team.
“I really do. I think Sunderland will certainly be bouncing high and they’ll have every chance.”
Sunderland certainly bounced high this season, even with the setbacks that came their way. The loss of Alex Neil to Stoke the first major blow, one that seems somewhat insignificant now, although you can’t detract from the great work he did on Wearside.
The injury to Ross Stewart, then to Ellis Simms, then the loss of Simms back to Everton and another injury to Stewart. It’s been far from plain sailing.
The fact the Black Cats are able to boast so many with a positive play-off experience heading into the play-offs will only bode well later this month. Defeat would be naturally disappointing given they’ve put themselves in this position, but unlike previous years, there’s no expectation for them to win promotion just yet, making it a free hit almost.
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