Sunderland need a revolution: Inside the failed promotion bid and critical next steps that Kyril Louis-Dreyfus & Co must take

At the end, it felt like no one quite knew how to feel.

Sunday, 23rd May 2021, 12:00 pm
Sunderland's players dejected at the final whistle

There was applause, some defiance, some anger.

A day when bonds were restored, and yet faith was fundamentally tested once more.

A day when Sunderland reminded everyone what they are and what they can be, all the while underlining just where they have found themselves, and how long the road back is.

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Sunderland fans inside of the Stadium of Light

It has been a bruising two months.

From a position of strength and with that ever hard-to-define momentum seemingly powering them forwards, Sunderland have contrived to fall short yet again.

Wednesday night was the nadir. A reset was promised, that the cobwebs of the previous ten games would be blown away in a flurry of intensity.

The reality was a listless display, and one that left the Black Cats with a mountain to climb.

Going to the match

Optimism on Wearside was in short supply.

And yet.

By Saturday morning there was a flicker; a city emerging from its slumber. From the earliest moments of the morning, shoots of red and white and old routines being reborn.

It grows and grows, that wariness slowly giving in to the possibilities.

If only we can get an early goal…Over the bridge and into the light.

At first the scene is more Papa John’s than do or die. But the first waves begin, ‘ha’way lads’ and ‘Sunderland til we die’. After fourteen months, it has never sounded so good.

And then.

Sunderland’s players emerge for their warm-up and all that energy from all that time away, all that hope and all that pride spills out.

It’s a crescendo and there is not a goose bump undisturbed.

It’s the hope we can’t stand.

And for 45 minutes, Sunderland deliver.

Lee Johnson has gambled, but it looks well-judged. The team is ultra-attacking, picked in the hope of pinning Lincoln in and not letting their vibrant attacking players anywhere near the home goal.

The head coach had called for Sunderland fans to create a cauldron on Wednesday and some had bristled at that. They didn’t need to be asked.

As Johnson takes his place in the dugout, he is visibly buoyed by what he hears.

The strains of ‘Wise Men Say’ ring in the ears and Johnson applauds.

His team start with gusto and don’t let up.

On Wednesday Lincoln’s inexperience seemed an asset. Talented, youthful players with seemingly no fear of failure or recognition of pressure. At every turn their thought was forward, forward. When Sunderland dithered they stepped in; Timothy Eyoma remarkable in his composure at the back.

Here, though, that inexperience tells.

Sunderland are direct but they are purposeful and under the sheer power their hosts are wilting.

The passing is panicked, the early attempts at time-wasting ill-judged.

With every press the decibels rise and rise.

10,000 feels like 50,000 and that unmistakable feeling returns, the greatest afternoons and nights on the banks of the Wear evoked.

Forget the level. This is Sunderland.

Then reality bites.

Michael Appleton, who is destined for the top tiers of the game, gets the break he needs.

There is an old-school rollicking for his players, who are told to remember what they are about and what they can do.

And there is a double substitution.

There is more experience and there is more composure.

Where Sunderland were imperious, now they are trying to plug gaps.

The second half sums up this deflating, insipid end to the season.

Sunderland concede from a corner and when Johnson speaks to the press afterwards, there is a thinly-disguised fury at this (as well as that decision before the break not to award a penalty for a foul on Ross Stewart).

His side had their warning moments before, when Regan Poole was gifted a free header but found the crossbar.

When this time the ball found centre-forward Tom Hopper, there was to be no mistake.

This has happened too often.

Defensive injuries have defined this second half to the campaign but the concentration in key moments has not been good enough. For much of the run-in, a spell of opposition pressure has too often led quickly to a goal.

You look back now and so much was lost in that second half at Wigan.

Not just in the panicked scramble for an equaliser, the collective loss of composure. But in the wincing at the back, Dion Sanderson realising that a back injury he had been trying to manage was becoming too serious.

Since then Sunderland have had a soft centre too easily exposed.

In the final throes there are chances, for sure. But where the play had a purpose in the first half, now it is desperation.

This again has been a theme of recent times. Only once in 2021 have Sunderland come from behind to win and that was against an Oxford United side reduced to ten.

In times of stress and strain a lack of identity betrays this squad; the inevitable consequence of the short-term and muddled thinking that defined the previous regime.

It’s hail-mary football and not for the first time, a city’s prayers go unanswered.

Fairly, Johnson notes afterwards that everywhere you looked in those closing moments, there were players out of position and running on empty.

The decision-making questionable, the weight of fatigue and the burden of past failures.

As they make their way around the ground to salute the support, two contrasting emotions clash against each other.

This was a stone-cold classic and as the adrenaline continues to surge, how can you not feel something that nears a warm glow? It has been 12 months of soulless football and here we have felt everything we had missed.

Everyone has left everything in this ground and though it seems trite, you are reminded of why this club’s future is always bright. The support that is its past, its present and its future.

Yet there is also fury and how could there not be?

A club that had previously only played one season at this level is now facing a fourth in this single stint.

It is a footballing failure of cataclysmic proportions, and the passing of the baton at boardroom level earlier this year should not deflect from the shambolic decision making of those who came before.

On the pitch this may have been a spirited last stand but there can be no doubt that this version of Sunderland has reached the end of a cycle.

Johnson has spoken repeatedly of creating a bold and brave team but too often they have not come to close to realising that vision.

Injuries have played their part in that but the long-term review tells its own story; clear in its clarity and simplicity.

Fifth, eighth, fourth. In the defining moments, the wins have been few and far between.

It has been a group that has consistently been unable to take the final step.

Sunderland need a revolution, now.

More pace, more athleticism, and far more bravery in possession. For inspiration they do not have to look far. On a fraction of their budget, there were numerous Lincoln players who would grace this turf.

Though their part in this failure may be slight, it is also incumbent on the new executive regime to recognise now the scale of this disappointment and articulate to supporters exactly what comes next and how this cycle is broken.

Make no mistake, League One will be tougher next season and Sunderland cannot afford any more missteps.

Johnson was forlorn in the opening exchanges of his post-match press conference but there was a bullishness as he fired the starting pistol on the summer rebuild which he says starts today.

This was a day that reminded you of what Sunderland can be, what it should be and what its support deserves.

At the crucial moment, they were let down once more. It cannot be allowed to happen again.

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