Twelve months is certainly a long time in football. Flash back to May 10th last season and the dust was settling following a dramatic night at Hillsborough.
Sunderland had booked their place in the League One play-off final thanks to a brilliant moment of magic from Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts to edge through a nervy affair on aggregate. The Black Cats may have missed out on the automatic promotion spots by six points and the title by eight, but they were about to embark on their own rollercoaster of emotion that we all know the outcome of.
The Black Cats would lift the play-off title under the Wembley arch, firmly dispelling their hoodoo in front of supporters that stretched back to 1973, or indeed the year prior if you wish to include the behind closed doors Papa John’s Trophy triumph. Very few would have predicted a year quite like the recent campaign.
Sunderland have had to overcome plenty of hurdles this season and still they’ve defied the odds to finish in the top-six. The Black Cats were no longer the big fish in a small pond, rather a big fish in a bigger pond given the finances of those clubs that have been relegated from the Premier League.
Of course, the Wearsiders are no paupers, but the extent of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus’ wealth remains a mystery, as it did back in League One. To fully appreciate the achievement of finishing in the play-offs this season, it’s well worth looking back at a memorable rise under the new ownership.
The young Frenchman admitted he would make mistakes and it would take time to get back to the Premier League, with a measured, strategic approach the way forward. But, when Wigan Athletic came calling for Charlie Wyke in the summer of 2021 – after he enjoyed his best season in a red and white shirt – turning down the Black Cats for a lucrative contract elsewhere, supporters’ frustration was somewhat understandable.
They’d just lost their top scorer for a free transfer. The Wearsiders were also linked with a move for loanee Jordan Jones on a permanent basis, only for him to choose the Latics, a wise decision for Sunderland in hindsight.
Shockingly, Wyke suffered from a cardiac arrest in the build-up to a game last season and has played a bit part role at the Latics since his recovery. Here’s hoping he’s able to rediscover his best form and get back playing on a regular basis.
In truth, the club may not have filled Wyke’s boots in a permanent fashion, with Ross Stewart the only senior striker on the books, but they’ve surpassed the likes of Wigan Athletic with their long-term plan and approach to signing young talents from across the globe. The Black Cats have finished in the top-six with one of the youngest squads in the division, handing 27,827 minutes of action to players under the age of 23, according to Eye on the Ball, with Wigan handing out just 3,361.
The premise isn’t to take aim at Wigan and their struggles off the pitch, rather highlight the brilliant work done by the new ownership and their plan to rebuild a club back to it’s former perch – using a side that finished above the Wearsiders as a marker for improvement. Wigan’s short-term approach to winning the League One title was not sustainable or transferable into the Championship, only emphasised by their standing this season.
It would be remiss not to mention the fact the Latics have had their fair share of turmoil behind the scenes, but solely from a football standpoint, the Louis-Dreyfus’ longer term approach is certainly trumping their former promotion rivals and the same could be said for Rotherham United and Blackpool who both struggled this season, with the latter relegated back to third tier.
Sunderland may be able to boast a greater financial pull than those three clubs, but Wigan’s owner Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi – who promised a grand return to the Premier League – failed to pay staff on a number of occasions this season and is facing calls to sell-up from supporters. Louis-Dreyfus has similar ambitions for the Wearsiders, but has played his cards in a different manner.
Promotion to the Premier League may be a step too far this season, but needless to say if Tony Mowbray and his side are able to upset the apple cart again, the good times aren’t too far away from a return to Wearside on a permanent basis. Supporters wouldn’t be overly disappointed in what’s been a remarkable campaign.
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