Alex Neil's first Sunderland win, embarrassed at Bolton plus Ross Stewart's Sheffield Wednesday hat-trick: Nine games which have defined the 2021/22 campaign

Nearly 10 months of action in a campaign which is approaching its 59th game. Sunderland will now be looking to end a rollercoaster season on an ultimate high.

Friday, 20th May 2022, 11:00 am

The Black Cats will face Wycombe Wanderers in the League One play-off final at Wembley this weekend – with Alex Neil’s side looking to end a four-year stay in the third tier.

Here, we look back at some of the defining matches of the 2021/22 campaign.

Sunderland 3 Wycombe 1 – August 28, 2021

Sunderland striker Ross Stewart celebrates after scoring against Wycombe. Picture by FRANK REID

A result which sent the Black Cats top of League One after four wins in their first five league games – which also included victories over Wigan and MK Dons.

Lee Johnson’s Sunderland rarely looked in trouble against a Wycombe side which had recently been playing in the Championship.

A Ross Stewart header and excellent Elliot Embleton strike put the hosts 2-0 up inside 18 minutes on a pleasant day at the Stadium of Light.

Stewart added a second seven minutes from time to make it four goals in five league games.

Rotherham 5 Sunderland 1 – October 30, 2021

Concerns were raised when Sunderland squandered a 2-0 lead to draw at Fleetwood, before being thumped 4-0 at Portsmouth in torrential weather conditions, yet the defeat at Rotherham really set alarm bells ringing.

The Black Cats were bullied at the New York Stadium and looked miles behind their promotion rivals – even before Aiden McGeady was sent off at 3-1.

There were no excuses.

Sunderland 5 Sheffield Wednesday 0 – December 30, 2021

What a night. What a way to end the year.

While they had played more games than some teams below them, Sunderland moved back to the top of League One with a resounding win.

The Owls did have several injury issues and hadn't played for over two weeks following a Covid-19 outbreak, yet Johnson’s side took full advantage.

Stewart scored his first hat-trick for the club as Sunderland moved above the two points per game average.

The win over Wednesday was part of a 10-match unbeaten run as Johnson’s side rediscovered their form over the festive period.

Bolton 6 Sunderland 0 – January 29, 2022

Disaster, embarrassing and the end for Johnson.

A 3-1 home defeat by Lincoln in the middle of January had shown the side were still vulnerable, yet no one could have imagined this.

Over 5,000 fans travelled to the North West but were left completely stunned as their team fell to pieces.

Even former Sunderland defender Declan John, who didn’t play a single game for the Black Cats, ended up on the scoresheet.

The performance once again highlighted the team’s weaknesses under Johnson. The head coach was sacked a day later.

Sunderland 1 MK Dons 2 – February 19, 2022

This defeat felt like Sunderland had hit rock bottom.

The club had taken 12 days to appoint Johnson’s successor in Alex Neil, with the side losing back-to-back games against League One strugglers Doncaster and Cheltenham in that time.

Another home defeat by MK Dons in Neil’s second game showed what a big task the new head coach had on his hands, with Sunderland dropping to seventh. Even a play-off place looked beyond them.

Former striker Connor Wickham scored the winning goal just to rub salt in the wounds.

Wigan 0 Sunderland 3 – February 26, 2022

Where did that come from?

After six games without a win the Black Cats headed to second-place Wigan in Neil’s third game.

Arbenit Xhemajli made his first League One start after over a year out with a knee injury and, just when hope appeared to be fading, Sunderland produced an accomplished away performance.

Bailey Wright’s headed opener inside two minutes set the tone, before two Ross Stewart penalties helped steer the season back on track.

Sunderland 1 Gillingham 0 – April 2, 2022

Broadhead!!!

The Everton loanee came off the bench to make just his second appearance since December following a lengthy hamstring injury – and what an impact he made.

Sunderland appeared to be heading towards a goalless draw against relegation-threatened Gillingham at the Stadium of Light. With little margin for error in the race to finish in the play-offs, the home crowd had become edgy.

It took until the fifth minute of stoppage time before the deadlock was finally broken, as Broadhead headed Elliot Embleton’s fine cross into the bottom corner.

Sunderland moved back into the top six, just, with six to play.

Oxford 1 Sunderland 2 – April 9, 2022

They say lightning doesn’t strike twice.

One week on from the Gillingham win, Sunderland scored another late winner, this time against play-off rivals Oxford.

Embleton’s composed finish in the 89th minute saw Neil’s side move four points clear of the U’s as momentum continued to grow.

The Black Cats’ unbeaten run went all the way to the end of the regular League One season and reached 13 games after a 1-0 win at Morecambe.

There were more late goals against Shrewsbury and Rotherham in that run too. Neil had guided his side into the play-offs.

Sheffield Wednesday 1 Sunderland 1 (1-2 on aggregate) – May 9, 2022

Surely the best one yet.

After keeping Sheffield Wednesday out for over two and a half hours of football, Sunderland’s defence was finally breached.

The Black Cats appeared to be on the ropes when Lee Gregory levelled the play-off semi-final on aggregate. Hillsborough was rocking, the tie appeared to be heading for extra-time.

Neil could have freshened things up and still had all three substitutes available, yet the Black Cats boss elected to stick with his starting XI.

The bold decision paid off, as Patrick Roberts converted Jack Clarke’s low cross in the third minute of stoppage time.

Now there’s just one more game to go.