Inside the incredible, joyous weekend Sunderland took over London and ended years of play-off pain

Phil Smith reports from Trafalgar Square, from Wembley, and everywhere in between on a special weekend for Sunderland and its support...

By Phil Smith
Sunday, 22nd May 2022, 12:53 pm

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Alex Pritchard’s number is up but his afternoon is not done. Wycombe Wanderers have thrown everything forward and now there is space and now there is opportunity.

A one-two with Patrick Roberts and to the edge of the box he goes.

The pass is to Ross Stewart and now time stands tantalisingly still. He shifts the ball out from his feet and slowly but very surely, he sends it for the corner. The wait might ordinarily be agony but it’s ok, now, because so many of us have waited a lifetime for this and we can wait just a moment more.

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This is it. This is our day. This is our time.

Stewart runs for the corner and looks to his team-mates, to the stands. His eyes are wide and his mouth gapes because how can you take this in.

How do you describe this wall of noise, this wave of delirium? It is relief and pride and it is pure, raw catharsis.

Above all else it’s a noise that says something is ending here.

Sunderland fans celebrate Ross Stewart's goal

We have brought our pain and our frustration and our fear that it might never be our day but none of that will leave with us. We are burying it here, in our tears of relief and joy, in our embraces and in our roar and the swirling of our scarves, our dancing in the aisles.

Saw you cry on the netflix, they sang.

From Plymouth to Portsmouth, Morecambe to Milton Keynes.

Honestly, you barely saw the half of it.

Elliot Embleton puts Sunderland into the lead at Wembley

Patrick Bauer at the back post had felt like some kind of finality but the journey was barely even getting started.

There were times when it scarcely felt credible, dumped out of the FA Cup in the first round by a Mansfield Town side who hadn’t won a competitive game all season. And a year later, doing exactly the same thing again.

There were days, so many of these, when it just felt numb. Losing to an U21 team and just so many times when Sunderland inched forward only to fall back. 59 draws and a million moments of doubt: is this worth it?

Even this season alone, seven goals conceded across four days in Yorkshire, the return of a club legend that would last a matter of weeks.

Ross Stewart celebrates his goal at Wembley

There were times when it was outright ridiculous, one play-off campaign knocked off course in part because of a side loaning in a possible future England number one, clawing away shots from every corner of his Sincil Bank goal.

And seemingly at every step of the way, echoes of the past finding a way to chip away at that morale every little bit more. Hat-tricks from some, last minute, points-per-game algorithm-bending braces from others. One, just for good measure, adding a *sixth* of the afternoon for his new club, against the one at which he didn’t kick a ball in anger for six months.

We’re barely even scratching the surface.

There have been so many days on which this club had never felt further away and yet there were moments where it convulsed, where it refused to accept this new reality and instead shook with what it could and should be.

When the sounds, the sights and the buzz were as ferocious as they ever were.

For too long they were only sporadic but of late something has begun to swell.

In Trafalgar Square and off Wembley Way the sounds are familiar but the edge is different.

Sunderland ‘Til we die, Sun’lun taking over, everywhere we go. You can see the red of the flares and smell the smoke and feel the anticipation. Drifting above it all you can sense something that comes to belief, that this time it is going to be different.

That hope was hard-earned, born from another nadir in the dark days of late winter.

“In terms of what we’re looking for, as a team, that isn’t going to be enough for us to be where we want to be,” Alex Neil said.

This was after his first game and it looked as if it had been a rude awakening.

On paper he had been confident in the players he was taking on but this was a sobering dose of reality. In front of his eyes he could see the naivety in some areas of the pitch, the borderline burnout in youngsters and the absence of match fitness in so many of the senior players.

What Neil didn’t have was time but what he did have was clarity.

There was technical quality here but there was a soft centre, too. Through changes of systems and personnel, training-ground graft and late goal upon late goal, things changed.

For four years the sense remained and the doubt lingered that even if you were down against Sunderland you could turn the tide.

Slow the game down, play quickly from back to front, get balls into the box, and something might well break.

Somewhere along the way this stopped being true and that is why we have this most remarkable sight before us.

50,000 stood as one, once again daring to put to one side the baggage and burden of their history.

Singing together and in their words saying, we have seen things we never thought we would see but we are here, we are together and we are louder and prouder than ever before.

This might well just be our day and this is why. Every counter attack that opens Wycombe up, every little clever backheel from Roberts, every second ball swept up. Every cross claimed calmly and comfortably by a goalkeeper who, unfathomably, is playing his 38th game like it is his 388th. Who stands tall even in the one rare moment where this side errs, settling the nerves that maybe are just beginning to creep in.

And because Neil has for sixteen games got the formula exactly right, each one a little different but built on a new-found resilience. A team now in control of its fate.

Here Neil has gone with Elliot Embleton and with 11 minutes on the clock the moment he has dreamed of, the moment we all dreamed of, arrives.

This has been his club right from the very start and it has been a topsy-turvy road to here. He has battled injury, been sent on loan to win promotion elsewhere and even in recent weeks has had to fight for every minute on the pitch.

The ball breaks and just inside his own half the first touch is perfect. Suddenly Wembley has opened up and past one he goes, past a second he goes again.

50,000 are surging with him, a rising tide at his back.

From 20 yards the connection is sweet but it is right down David Stockdale’s line right until it isn’t.

This is it.

We thought this was the road to nowhere but it was not.

It was the road to this moment, this feeling, this time, our time. The very days of our lives.