Phil Smith's verdict: The Sunderland milestone that shouldn't go unnoticed after another tricky night in League One

The last time Nigel Clough made his way to the Stadium of Light press room, his Burton Albion side had just relegated Sunderland.

Wednesday, 10th April 2019, 10:22 am
Updated Wednesday, 10th April 2019, 10:39 am
Sunderland moved into second after a frenetic draw with Burton Albion

There had not been a great deal between the sides, but Sunderland found a way to lose, as they always seemed to that in that campaign.

Two late goals gifted away, a late equaliser dubiously ruled out by the referee.

When the final whistle blew, it took a while to register that the turn of events did indeed mean the Black Cats were gone.

In some ways, that felt apt. It was a campaign that went through shock, anger, and found its way to the biggest enemy of all: total numbness.

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Clough's words that day had been a minor tonic. Affection for the club, a reminder of better days, and so a small sense of hope for the future.

A year on, it was uplifting to see that hope has become reality.

Clough surveyed what he had seen of Sunderland, their place in the table and insisted, 'they're on their way back up'.

It was far from Sunderland's best showing this season, but the point did see them achieve a milestone that should not go unnoticed.

Whatever happens in the final stretch of the season, Jack Ross will, at the very least, take his side into the play-offs for another chance at an instant return to the Championship.

It does not seem of great note now, when they are in pole position to finish second.

But it is hard not to think back to that day last April, all the fear and loathing, the insecurity about the future.

Had you offered then a guaranteed play-off spot, a club reunited and one of the most memorable weekends in the club's recent history, it would have seemed like quite the turnaround and it has been.

As Clough said, to lose only two league games thus far is 'absolutely remarkable'.

You would have got long odds on that 2-1 reverse last year still being Sunderland's most recent home defeat in the league, too.

Of course, as Ross pointed out in his own post-match remarks, that will mean little now that his side have put themselves in such a promising position to secure second.

It is firmly in their hands and to slip up would be a bitter disappointment.

This was a game that perhaps served as a slight reality check after what had been two dizzying wins on the road.

Burton are currently one of the toughest teams to face in the league and their 3-1 demolition of Barnsley on Saturday underlined that. They were more than worthy of their point here and at times Sunderland's 4-4-2 system left them looking exposed.

The away side played intelligently, pouncing on poor passes into midfield and breaking into space.

Jon McLaughlin was more active than he has been for a while and had to make some big stops from great opportunities.

The exertions of the previous week looked to catch up with Sunderland a little, particularly given the inexperience of their bench.

With Max Power having to replace the injured Dylan McGeouch early, Ross' options were limited.

The return of Aiden McGeady, Lee Cattermole and Chris Maguire cannot come soon enough.

Substitutes Kazaiah Sterling and Benji Kimpioka were lively and a threat, but did little to change the general sense that the home side were lacking control.

Even so, they could so easily have taken all three points.

Sterling missed a great opening late on, as Charlie Wyke did in the first half.

They also hit the woodwork twice and there were times in the second half when it looked like Burton might just wilt.

It was a fair point, one that strengthens Sunderland's hand significantly but underlines that it will not be easy to get over the line.

The same applies to their promotion rivals, with Portsmouth having to travel to the Pirelli Stadium on Good Friday.

This has been a tough, tight division and this draw just reinforced that it is not going to change in the final few games.

Which is why Sunderland's position is such a strong one.

Understandably, supporters may not dare to share Clough's confidence, but his words are worth reflecting on all the same.