Sunderland Season Review: Wembley Joy for Black Cats as Promotion Finally Achieved

Sunderland Season Review
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As usual, it was an eventful season on Wearside. Could this finally be the year that Sunderland escaped from League One and returned to the Championship? It was undoubtedly a tough season for the Black Cats but it was one that ended in joy for the thousands who follow their team. The Sunderland season review of 2021/22 is a look back at the year that brought some much-needed hope and delight. However, it wasn’t an easy ride.

Sunderland Season Review: Wembley Joy for Black Cats Following Another Tough Season

Pre Season: First Team Squad Overhaul

Many Black Cats fans believe a new season brings new hope; however, it also brings realism. Over the years it has rarely gone right at Sunderland, especially since relegation from the Premier League. However, this time, there was a new owner (controversy on this came later in the season) and also they had a manager in Lee Johnson who came in midway through the previous season who now had a pre-season to work with and change his squad.

The summer brought nine new players. A mix of experience and youth. Alex Pritchard who had commanded transfer fees of £8 and £11 million arrived on a free transfer. Midfielder Corry Evans also signed on a free transfer and would be given the captain’s armband. A host of young players were also signed for the first team. Dennis Cirkin from Tottenham, Callum Doyle from Manchester City, Nathan Broadhead from Everton, Frederik Alves from West Ham United and Niall Huggins from Leeds United. Doyle, Broadhead and Alverz were season-long loans. Two German players also arrived in goalkeeper Thorban Hoffmann and winger Leon Dajaku, both of whom were signed on loan with a view to a permanent transfer.

To the surprise of many, several first players were allowed to leave when their contracts expired. The previous season’s top scorer with 31 goals Charlie Wyke and captain Max Power left for Wigan Athletic. Fan favourite Chris Maguire also departed.

Head Coach Lee Johnson had overhauled his first team in order to play how he wanted to and following an unbeaten pre-season schedule, fans were optimistic.

Sunderland Season Review: Could This Be Sunderland’s Year? 

The first two months of the season saw optimism amongst fans rise as their team lost just one league game, winning seven and progress through three rounds of the Carabao Cup. October and November saw three disappointing and heavy defeats at the hands of Portsmouth, Rotherham United and Sheffield Wednesday. They were also defeated in the FA Cup by Mansfield Town; however, amongst these, the team were collecting victories. December saw two five-nil victories as the Black Cats rose to the top of the table.

Lee Johnson Sacked, Alex Neil Arrives

December would be the best it would get for Lee Johnson. A poor run of form and results in January, including a humiliating 6-0 defeat at Bolton Wanderers saw Johnson sacked. From the beginning of January until the victory at Wigan in late February, Sunderland won just one game in 10. They had fallen down the league and had gone from automatic promotion contenders to playoff hopefuls. However, they now had a new manager in charge in Alex Neil, and what an impact he had.

Ownership Controversy

Clarity on the ownership of the club came in February and it caused major controversy. When Kyril Louis-Dryfus’ takeover was announced in 2021, he was described as the new chairman and controlling stakeholder. However, it came to light that he owns only 41%. While this is the largest portion of shares for a single person, former owners Stewart Donald, Juan Sartori and Charlie Methven own the remaining shares. These total 59%.

Although Louis-Dreyfus has executive control of the club, fans were worried and still are, that the former owners still have a large percentage of shares.

Unbeaten Run

It took several games for Alex Neil to get across to the players how he wanted them to play in order to resurrect their season but once he did, there was no stopping them.

Alex Neil and his team set off on a 16 game unbeaten run that would include one of the best days that Sunderland fans have had at the home of football since 1973. 10 of these games were won to cement their place in the playoffs where they would face Sheffield Wednesday over two legs for the right to play in the final at Wembley.

Over 45,000 packed into the Stadium of Light for the first game creating a deafening and intimidating atmosphere. A goal just before halftime from top scorer Ross Stewart was enough to win the game; however, Sunderland would have felt they deserved to take a more commanding lead to Sheffield for the second leg.

The second leg at Hillsborough was a tense and frustrating affair with both teams struggling to create clear chances. However, in the 74th minute, the Owls scored to level the tie on aggregate. Ten minutes of added on time gave the Wednesday fans hope of a memorable comeback but Sunderland had become known for never giving up and scoring late goals.

On this night, they proved that they don’t give up until the final whistle. Patrick Roberts scored from close range in the 93rd minute to the delight of the travelling fans and to deflate Wednesday and their support. It was enough to send Sunderland to Wembley and condemn the Owls to another season in League One.

Wembley Winners

More than 46,000 fans travelled from the North East to take over London for the weekend as Sunderland faced Wycombe Wanderers in the play-off final at Wembley.

Sunderland and the play-offs and indeed Wembley over the past 49 years have had a turbulent relationship. Before last season’s EFL Trophy victory played at an empty stadium due to lockdown, the Black Cats had tried eight times to win at Wembley since 1973 and failed on each occasion. Could Alex Neil and his team put all of this behind them and end their four-year stay in League One?

Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart scored in either half to delight their fans and secure their place in next season’s Championship. Speaking to Sky Sports, man of the match Alex Pritchard said: “Everyone goes on about the size of this club, I’ve said many times it’s been in this league for too long. We’ve had ups and downs all season, it’s been an absolute rollercoaster.

“Big thank you to Lee Johnson at the start of the season, a lot of credit to him, and now the gaffer’s come in and has been unbelievable. We’ve stuck together, we’ve had some tough times this year, and the fans deserve it – they’ve been incredible.”

Retained List and Contract Offers

Soon after the victory and the joy of winning at Wembley, it was back to business for the club as they announced their retained list for next season. It was also announced who would be offered new contracts and who would be released due to their contracts expiring.

Bailey Wright, Lynden Gooch and Patrick Roberts have been offered new contracts and Leon Dajaku saw his loan become a permanent transfer whereas experienced winger Aiden McGeady will depart the club after five years. Defenders Arbenit Xhemajli, Jordan Willis and goalkeeper Lee Burge will also leave when their respective contracts expire on 30 June 2022.