Sunderland went into 2018 optimistic that after 18 months of disappointment, things might be on the turn.
The manager who led Wales to the European Championship semi-finals had somehow been persuaded to sign up for a Championship relegation battle and already his new team were starting to show the solid foundations on which they could surely put up a fight.
In the end, though, it all proved cruelly misguided.
The 12 months the Wearsiders have been through feel like a lifetime, and the club has been utterly transformed since.
The year ends the way it began – with the promise of brighter days to come. This time, though, it is more expectation than hope.
New owner Stewart Donald has breathed fresh optimism into the club, and new manager Jack Ross and his team have ridden the wave. A team that sometimes gave the impression it did not belong in the Championship – how right they were! – has been replaced with one more in tune with their new surroundings, players ready to roll their sleeves up and get stuck into League One football.
The best aspects of the club – its loyal support and productive academy – have remained and played a bigger part in the upturn of fortunes that has been the first half of 2018-19. Not yet top of a table many outsiders who do not understand the context of Sunderland’s revival expect them to romp, there is still much to be done.
But the favourites for the Football League Trophy are an away win against one the bookies’ outsiders from the quarter-finals, and their League One promotion push is on course.
There is cause for optimism, but this time it feels less likely to end in a false dawn.
NEW YEAR OPTIMISM QUICKLY EVAPORATES
Sunderland ended a miserable 2017 positively. Manager Chris Coleman won his first away game in charge (at Burton Albion), and claimed a 0-0 draw at Premier League-bound Wolverhampton Wanderers despite playing half-an-hour with ten men.
Josh Maja’s debut goal brought a first home win for 364 days, against Fulham, and although the Black Cats took a Boxing Day pasting at Sheffield United, a very hard-fought 1-0 win at Nottingham Forest suggested the foundations were in place for the firefighting to come.
It took less than 16 hours of 2018 for reality to kick in. Darron Gibson had been carrying a groin injury throughout the Festive schedule and in the first half against Barnsley, the Black Cats’ best player of December limped off, never to play for them against.
The FA Cup third-round tie at Middlesbrough was a write-off, but a 4-0 televised defeat at Cardiff City, with new loan signing Jake Clarke-Salter given the runaround, was especially sobering. A heavy 3-1 defeat at Birmingham City ended January.
ANOTHER TRANSFER WINDOW OF DISAPPOINTMENT
It was clear early in December that on-loan top-scorer Lewis Grabban’s head had been turned by talk of a January move and once he was called back by Bournemouth, Sunderland had to find a replacement. Derby County’s Chris Martin was lined up, but got cold feet,
Having inherited a failing squad, Coleman needed recruits, but owner Ellis Short refused to stump up any money to provide them, so he had to beg, borrow and steal.
The highly-rated Ashley Fletcher came in for Grabban on loan, but continued his miserable Middlesbrough form rather than enhancing the reputation built as a Manchester United youngster. Clarke-Salter came from Chelsea to learn more about the game, but was a boy asked to do a man’s job.
The fragile Kazenga LuaLua was a gamble that never came off, and Ovie Ejaria was always going to struggle to have an impact on a struggling team.
Of the five January signings, experienced goalkeeper and relegation battler Lee Camp look the safest, but he too was a big disappointment.
Three-nil down at Bristol City before half-time, and 3-1 behind at home to Middlesbrough after an hour, Sunderland battled back to draw both games 3-3.
It showed that there was a least a bit of fighting spirit about Coleman’s teams – but that spirit would only highlight their footballing shortcomings – and neither draw could be followed up with much-needed victories.
FALSE DAWN AT DERBY
Easter’s televised 4-1 win at Derby County had you wondering – they couldn’t, could they?
The manner of the victory, plus a first goal in nine Sunderland appearances for Fletcher, raised hopes that the Black Cats’ traditional relegation escape act might be back on after a one-year hiatus.
But no, they couldn’t.
If St Patrick’s Day was a good one for Gibson as he closed in on a return to fitness, the next was not so clever.
Still under the influence, Gibson climbed in his car after training and smashed it into a taxi and a row of five parked cars, then a garden wall.
Gibson escaped prison for his second drink-driving offence in three years, but not the sack from Sunderland.
Having embarrassed himself with a videoed rant about his team-mates in pre-season looking much the worse for wear in a hotel bar, it was a sad end to the Stadium of Light career of a player who had talent, but too many problems to make the most of it.
Sunderland were relegated at home to Burton Albion in April and while it was perhaps a mercy to be put out of their misery, it did not feel that way when former striker Darren Bent twisted the knife in.
Things were going well against the relegation rivals, 1-0 up after 85 minutes, until substitute Bent scored an equaliser and Liam Boyce’s 90th-minute winner confirmed what we had known for some time: the Black Cats were heading to the third tier for only the second time in their history.
Coleman had moved his glamorous wife and their child to Wearside and was talking the talk about wanting to stay and fight at the Stadium of Light so convincingly you had to admire his guts and question his sanity.
But when Short cleared the decks for a takeover of the club it wasn’t just the debts he wiped out – Coleman was handed his P45 too.
Given his record he could have no cause for complaint, but it was a shame to see someone who got the club and had the steel to relish being part of the fightback shown the door.
Paddy McNair finished the season with four goals in five games, showing what he was capable when he finally had a run of matches after an injury-hit time at the Stadium of Light.
The quality of his midfield performances as well as the goals got fans excited, but sadly it was his Sunderland swansong.
McNair had proved himself a quality Championship performer, and Sunderland would no longer be a part of it, so it was inevitable he would move on. It was just a pity that in Middlesbrough he did not pick a club willing to give him the regular football he needed to continue his development.
STOCKDALE PLAYS THE KIDS
Caretaker manager for the second time that season, coach Robbie Stockdale’s spell at the Stadium of Light was coming to an end – not that he knew for sure at that stage.
But Stockdale left a sign of how things could get better.
A 3-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, riding on the euphoria of the watching Donald’s imminent takeover, meant Sunderland were the only Championship side the title winners were unable to beat in 2017-18.
If the victory was rather hollow, the players who achieved it were more significant.
Debutants Denver Hume, Luke Molyneux and Bali Mumba, a 16-year-old substitute who symbolically ended the season wearing the captain’s armband, highlighted that the academy offered a way out of the gloom. Ethan Robson, Elliot Embleton and the soon-to-depart Joel Asoro also added to the positive end-of-season vibe.
THE P***-TAKE PARTY IS OVER
Sunderland’s new era began on May 20 when Donald’s takeover was given Football League approval.
Heading off straight from his Press conference the next day to record a fanzine podcast set a good tone, but it was his executive director Charlie Methven who came up with the most memorable soundbite, warning would-be signings and their agents, “the p***-take party is over”.
Between them, Donald and Methven did a huge amount of work in their first six months to reconnect fans with the club, most notably the initiative for volunteer supporters to replace the Stadium of Light’s faded seats, signalling the neglect the club had suffered was at an end, while the pair were often found mingling with fans on the terraces and in the pubs.
Uruguayan Juan Sartori soon joined as an investor.
JACK ROSS… AND SKULDUGGERY
Donald promised in his opening Press conference to appoint a manager by the end of the week, and duly delivered St Mirren’s Jack Ross.
Talking about Ross’ arrival live on national radio before mentioning it to his then-employers brought accusations of “skulduggery” and naivety, but did not stop the deal going through.
Unheralded but highly-rated within the game, the 42-year-old represented a gamble, but added to the fresh feel around the club. Whereas Shrewsbury Town’s Paul Hurst – another they looked at – was caught out of his depth and quickly sacked by Ipswich Town, Ross has impressed.
Two Academy of Light graduates were at the heart of England’s historic penalty shoot-out victory over Columbia at the World Cup.
After missing his spot-kick, vice-captain Jordan Henderson was grateful to goalkeeper Jordan Pickford for sparing his blushes, but both Wearsiders played a crucial role in England’s run to the semi-finals, underlining why continuing to fund Sunderland’s academy was such an important part of Donald’s business plan.
SEE YA JACK
One of Donald’s first acts was an extremely popular one – seeing the back of Jack Rodwell.
The central midfielder had been the poster boy for Sunderland’s demise in 2016-17, the only player still on Premier League wages after relegation, yet only making three first-team appearances.
His brief appearance in Sunderland ‘Til I Die did him no favours.
Rodwell’s contract was cancelled before pre-season began, an important step towards a clean slate for Ross.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD?
The Ross era started in defeat, at non-league Darlington. It was hardly the sign things were going to get better.
It was, though, only pre-season, and the longer the friendlies went on, the more Sunderland’s football improved and the more cohesive they looked. You know, like pre-season is supposed to work.
The job of football club captain is a fairly ceremonial one, but symbolism was important as the Black Cats tried to relaunch in League One. With that in mind, 23-year-old Prudhoe-born academy graduate George Honeyman was a good choice to lead them.
Even though he seems to be forever under-rated, Honeyman is not guaranteed his place in the most competitive part of Sunderland’s team, yet he felt like a good appointment.
Ross’ first competitive game could barely have followed a better script.
To come from 1-0 down, the opener scored by summer target Lyle Taylor, and for the Black Cats’ goals to come from two academy graduates was brilliant. That Lynden Gooch left it until the 90th minute to secure the victory made the sense of satisfaction even greater for a pumped-up Stadium of Light crowd.
Comebacks would be a real feature of the opening months of the season, until Sunderland got out of the habit of conceding first.
FOUR OUT OF FOUR FOR MAJA
It is probably safe to assume Maja would have been down the centre-forward pecking order if things had gone to plan for Ross in the summer, but the teenager took his chance, scoring in the first four games of the season.
The last Sunderland player to do that was Dave Halliday in 1927-8 – although in fairness, he scored 11 goals in the first eight matches of that season.
Maja’s eye for goal continued and although there are legitimate complaints about his lack of involvement in the build-up, the quality of his finishing has been exceptional – and the quantity has been pretty good too.
Lee Cattermole’s two goals saw Sunderland come from behind – again – to win at Wimbledon, and underlined how quickly he had turned public opinion in his favour.
Booed by travelling fans in the pre-season friendly at Hartlepool United, it felt like the Teessider was going to be a scapegoat until he left the club but with wages way out of the orbit of those clubs interested in him, that was never likely to happen in the summer transfer window.
Cattermole was left out of the opening-day win over Charlton, and came off the bench at Luton Town, but quickly won over supporters with his workrate. His strike at Coventry City doubled the goal tally for his Black Cats career.
Bryan Oviedo was another left out on day one, but he also impressed with his attitude, albeit his influence waned as the year went on.
Donald tweeted it was the best non-matchday of his chairmanship when he was finally able to give Didier Ndong the sack, as he had with Papy Djilobodji.
The survivors from Sunderland’s Premier League era refused to report for pre-season training, or even the opening month of the campaign. When Djilobodji finally showed, with the transfer windows he was hoping to move in now closed, the Black Cats claimed he miserably failed a fitness test.
Ndong waited even longer to appear, after the Portuguese window shut in late September.
Sunderland are due compensation if either find new clubs in the next two transfer windows and even if not, have reserved the right to sue. They are certainly better off without them.
GOING FOR A BURTON
Sunderland suffered their first league defeat of the season at Burton, despite Chris Maguire coming off the bench to score what threatens to be one of the goals of the season.
Rather than open up doubts in the squad, it seemed to remind them of their responsibilities, and their response to the 2-1 defeat was excellent.
Sunderland’s supporters – particularly away from home – have been a real feature of their season, and there were 5,000 at Coventry for an early, televised kick-off. It would have been more had they been allowed.
The Black Cats took up nearly half the ground at Accrington Stanley for their abandoned match, and two of the four stands at Walsall in the league. Every away match in the first half of the season has resulted in the host club’s biggest league attendance.
In fairness, Sunderland’s away support was very good in the two relegation seasons as well, but now at last they had something to shout about.
Max Power had never picked up a red card before he joined Sunderland on loan the day after the deadline for permanent transfers, but now has three.
The midfielder was sent off for lunging in at home to Oxford United, then stupidly kicked out against Bradford City in early October. His terrible timing and the stupid rule that players cannot feature in the Football League Trophy during their suspensions, yet those games do not count towards it, meant he missed 12 matches in the first half of the season, having joined a game late.
It could have been worse. He was sent off at Walsall in the league, but the suspension was overturned on appeal.
With Oviedo sent off against Peterborough United days before the trip to Valley Parade, discipline was becoming a bit of a concern.
EIGHT IN A ROW
Sunderland’s 2018 purple patch came in October/November, when the club won eight consecutive matches in all competitions.
Jon McLaughlin came into his own during the run, keeping four consecutive clean sheets having only had two previously for the club.
It looked like the Wearsiders were starting to build a real momentum.
The ninth consecutive win was due to come at home to Wycombe Wanderers, and it would take them top of the table with Portsmouth sitting the weekend out because of international call-ups.
But Gareth Ainsworth had other ideas. His team sat back and took the sting out of the game, something Ross’ team struggled with.
Maja’s tenth goal of the season rescued a point in the 84th minute, but an opportunity had been missed, and the purple patch was at an end.
ON THE ROAD TO WEMBLEY – WITH DUNCAN WATMORE
A 2-0 victory at home to Notts County put Sunderland set up a Football League Trophy tie at home to Newcastle United Under-21s in the last 16 – three wins from Wembley.
Just as important, Duncan Watmore made his first appearance of 2018, having suffered cruciate knee ligament injuries at the end of 2016 and 2017.
Keeping the forward fit will be good for morale and good for the strength of the team because Watmore is popular on and off the field for his personality and his energetic playing style.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
The Netflix cameras were following the Black Cats around for the whole of last season, and still are. The initial fruits of their labour, Sunderland ‘Til I Die, was a reminder of the car crash Ross, Donald and the rest had to rescue the club from.
BIG GAME GOES FLAT
For months, Portsmouth v Sunderland had loomed large as a big game in the calendar, but not for the first time in 2018, a sending off cost them.
After a fairly even first half, Glenn Loovens picked up Sunderland’s eighth red card of the year at the start of the second, and Pompey pounced to win 3-1.
Such is the seesaw nature of the Football League, Kenny Jackett’s side had lost at Gillingham before Sunderland took to the pitch again, limiting the damage.
Ross boarded a supporters bus at Woodhall Services after the game to thank 30 of the 2,647 travelling fans in person and wish them a merry Christmas. It was another reminder of how the club ending 2018 getting so much right having got so much wrong in the first half of the year.
BOX OFFICE BOXING DAY
Helped by the fantastic “Gift of Football” charity initiative, Sunderland drew a crowd of 46,039 for the Boxing Day visit of Bradford, the biggest third-tier crowd of the post-Taylor Report era. Even Tottenham Hotspur could not attract more to Wembley for a 5-0 win which saw them leapfrog Manchester City in the Premier League.
On the pitch, the Black Cats were grateful to linesman Martin Dwyer, who thought Jon McLaughlin had recovered his goalkeeping error before the whole of the ball crossed the line, even though it looked to most inside the stadium as though the goal should have stood. Bradford manager David Hopkin said referee Darren England apologised to his assistant Martin Drury afterwards.
Thanks to that, Sunderland won the game 1-0.
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