There’s a saying in Sunderland that whenever promotion, a Wembley final or even a relegation battle is upcoming. That saying is “Dare to Dream”. Following last season’s promotion from League One via the playoffs, a successful season for the Black Cats would have been to consolidate in the Championship and avoid a relegation battle.
This has been achieved but following victory at Cardiff City on Easter Monday, Sunderland find themselves just four points off the playoff places with five games to play. Do fans once again “dare to dream”? Whatever happens, this can be deemed a successful season for Sunderland.
It’s Been a Successful Season for Sunderland, Whatever Happens
Early Season Change
Although last season’s playoff victory at Wembley will live long in the memory of Sunderland fans, the man that led them there Alex Neil departed the club early into the new season. His departure and the nature of it left fans disappointed when he decided that Stoke City was where his future lay.
In came experienced Championship manager Tony Mowbray. He almost immediately settled any nerves for the remainder of the season and set to work with Sunderland’s young team. He has moulded a team of youngsters with a few experienced heads into a free-flowing attacking side able to cause any team serious problems. However, it hasn’t been all plain sailing
Injuries Have Taken Their Toll
Injuries to key first-team players throughout the season have left Mowbray with little option but to turn to young players with little to no experience at first team or Championship level. Many of the injuries sustained have led to players missing large parts of the season with some being ruled out long-term until the summer.
Key players such as Ross Stewart, captain Corry Evans and Elliot Embleton have been long-term absentees. Others such as Dan Ballard, Lynden Gooch, and Dennis Cirkin amongst several others have all missed games stretching Mowbray’s squad to the limit.
What Might Have Been
Currently four points off a playoff position, fans can look back on a successful season; however, without long-term injuries, the Black Cats could already be amongst those in the playoff places.
The key player fans will point to is striker Ross Stewart. The Scotland forward hit 24 league goals last season but has managed just 13 league games this season but still scored an impressive 10 goals. If Stewart had stayed injury-free then Sunderland could already have a place in the top six cemented.
On-loan striker Ellis Simms was recalled by Everton in January. Seven goals in 17 appearances made him an ideal backup for Stewart; however, relegation-threatened Everton decided they needed their forward back to help their survival bid.
Captain and defensive midfielder Corry Evans has been missing since January and for many games, Mowbray has also struggled to field natural defenders in either a back three or four.
Despite this, those who have come in have filled the gaps left to the best of their abilities with goalkeeper Anthony Patterson earning an England call-up due to his impressive form.
Still a Chance
A poor run of form in March appeared to have distinguished any hopes of reaching the playoffs, with Mowbray’s young squad at times struggling against the more experienced sides in the division. However, with just five games left following the win at Cardiff, and four points separating the team from their comfortable 10th place to the top six, suddenly another season ending in the playoffs is not impossible.
The Black Cats have back-to-back home games coming up on Saturday and then Tuesday against Birmingham City and Huddersfield Town. Despite this, Sunderland’s home form has let them down this season but should Mowbray and his team find a way to get six points, they could go into the remaining three games with a real chance of securing a place in the top six.
Tony Mowbray on Playoff Hopes
Head coach Tony Mowbray has played down their chances in a bid to relieve some of the pressure on his players but has admitted that there is a chance. Speaking after the Cardiff game, he said: “It just feels as if there are too many big teams, will they all feel the pressure and fall away? I’m not too sure, but I haven’t seen their fixtures. Our fixtures, at least on paper, it looks like we have some opportunities. If we get the points from the next two, you probably won’t be far off.
We’ve struggled a bit at home, in terms of getting over the line and winning matches. It’s difficult when teams come and make life difficult for us, slowing the game down and then as we saw the other night, if you play too many forwards you leave yourselves vulnerable.
“If we win the next couple, it’ll be very interesting to see where it would leave us in the table. It would be exciting to get to the last two or three still with a chance of creeping in, but let’s see how we go.”
Whatever Happens, It’s Been a Successful Season for Sunderland
With all that has gone on at the club in recent years, be it relegations, changes in ownership and several seasons in League One, this current season should be seen as a success and bring hope that with the correct investment, should Sunderland’s promotion bid fall short then they will be much stronger and in a better position to challenge next season.
The team have achieved their aim of staying in the Championship following promotion. Those that came up with them may not be so lucky. Mowbray’s young team despite their setbacks have shown that they can compete and beat the best that this division has to offer.
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