Sunderland’s four-year League One stay examined

28 July 2022 0 By Total Football News

Sunderland have played in the third tier of English football for just five seasons in their entire history.

The first was a brief Division Three stint in 1987/88, but the other four have come in the last four years. It has been a challenging time for those of a red and white persuasion in Tyne and Wear.

The exile from the Sky Bet Championship is over now, though. A convincing 2-0 win over Wycombe in the League One play-off final at Wembley on May 21 - courtesy of goals from Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart - made sure of that.

So, on Sunday July 31, Alex Neil will lead his team out at the Stadium of Light as the Black Cats return to action with the visit of Coventry, live on Sky Sports Football. A Premier League return is, without doubt, the eventual goal, but for now, this will do nicely.

Sunday 31st July 11:30am Kick off 12:00pm
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In the lead-up to a day that will be one to remember - regardless of the result - we take a look at how Sunderland's last four seasons have panned out, with the help of Michael Dunne from the Roker Report fanzine & podcast.

2018/19 - Double disappointment

For any club, one relegation is damaging enough. But two in succession is nothing short of catastrophic.

Sunderland found that out in 2018.

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Having dropped out of the Premier League after a decade in 2017, they finished bottom of the Championship a year later. To make matters worse, Netflix cameras had captured every agonising moment from the eye of the storm, with the footage laid bare in the reveal-all 'Sunderland 'Til I Die' documentary series.

Sunderland were relegated from the Championship under Chris Coleman in April 2018
Image: Sunderland were relegated from the Championship under Chris Coleman in April 2018

Starting the season in League One meant the Black Cats had dropped to their lowest position in the EFL pyramid for three decades. But there were soon to be flickers of hope on Wearside.

In April 2018, Stewart Donald relinquished his role at non-League Eastleigh and completed a takeover of the club from Texan businessman Ellis Short for £40m, wiping out any remaining debt in the process.

Donald and business partner Charlie Methven admitted there needed to be "a turnaround" and that summer, they brought in 13 players on permanent contracts, two on loan and generated considerable funds after the sales of the likes of Wahbi Khazri, Paddy McNair, Fabio Borini and Joel Asoro.

Jack Ross took over the vacant manager's role, having led St Mirren to the Scottish Championship the season before and, by the turn of the year, everything was ticking over perfectly. Sunderland were third on New Year's Day having lost just two of their 24 matches.

Sunderland lost to Portsmouth in the 2018/19 Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley
Image: Sunderland lost to Portsmouth in the 2018/19 Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley

But while eventual champions Luton were beginning to pull away at the top, Ross' men developed an unhealthy habit for draws. Regardless, they remained well within the top four and looked a dead-cert to finish inside the top six.

Meanwhile, during that time, they had also been making significant progress in the Checkatrade Trophy and saw off Newcastle and Man City's U21 sides on the way to booking a final date with Portsmouth on March 31. It turned out to be a thriller.

In front of a record crowd of 85,021, Aiden McGeady put Sunderland ahead, before forcing penalties in the 119th-minute when Nathan Thompson and Jamal Lowe had turned the game in Pompey's favour. Hope soon turned to heartache, though, with club legend Lee Cattermole's penalty miss costing them the trophy.

The Black Cats then lost 2-1 to Charlton in the 2018/19 League One play-off final at Wembley
Image: The Black Cats suffered a second Wembley defeat when they lost 2-1 to Charlton in the 2018/19 League One play-off final

With automatic promotion still well within sight at the start of April - Sunderland were six points behind second-placed Barnsley with three games in hand - victory might have provided the catalyst to push on, finish inside the top two and secure an immediate return to the Championship. Defeat, however, seemed to do the opposite and, after three defeats and three draws in the final nine games, they had to settle for a fifth-place finish.

That set up another showdown with Portsmouth in the play-off semi-finals, which Sunderland edged 1-0 on aggregate, thanks to Chris Maguire's 62nd-minute goal in the first leg.

Promotion seemed to be a whisker away when Naby Sarr's comical backpass escaped the grasp of goalkeeper Dillon Phillips to give Sunderland the lead against Charlton in the play-off final at Wembley, but the Addicks found their way back into the game through Ben Purrington and - just when it looked as though the game would go to extra-time - Patrick Bauer bundled the ball home to break Mackem hearts.

Michael Dunne of the Roker Report's verdict: "In the circumstances, Ross did a stellar job of blending together the new squad. With a mixture of experience and youth, the Sunderland team hit the ground running after our last-gasp win against Charlton.

"With Josh Maja scoring 18 goals before Christmas, it looked like the team were on course for automatic promotion. This was all turned on its head after Maja refused to sign a new contract and he went to Bordeaux in January. Stewart Donald panicked and with the mission of appeasing the fans, he spent an astronomical £4m on Will Grigg.

"As we all know, this turned out to be a disaster and with a significant amount of draws, Sunderland stuttered into the play-off final where they were deservedly beaten."

2019/20 - Covid curtailment derails promotion bid

Potentially still reeling from the play-off disappointment of a few months earlier, Sunderland made a mediocre start to 2019/20 and dropped out of the play-off places during the October international break.

With the club looking like surefire promotion candidates the same time 12 months earlier, the board saw this as the opportune moment to make a change in management and Jack Ross was sacked after less than 18 months in charge at the Stadium of Light, despite having overseen just seven league defeats.

Phil Parkinson took over from Jack Ross on October 17 2019
Image: Phil Parkinson took over from Jack Ross on October 17 2019

"This is a decision that has been made with a heavy heart," said Stewart Donald after the surprise announcement was made.

"When we arrived at the club, we appointed Jack because we felt that he was the right man to take Sunderland forward over a number of years. Jack has worked extremely hard, and has helped us achieve stability at the club, and I sincerely thank him for his efforts. I hope and believe that he will go on to have a successful career in management."

Phil Parkinson was appointed as his successor nine days later and was under pressure from the get-go, not least due to losing four of his first seven games in charge.

In the January transfer window, however, he drafted in reinforcements, including Bailey Wright and Antoine Semenyo, while wantaway winger Aiden McGeady left for Charlton. Results began to pick up and they got off the mark for 2020 with a 3-1 home win over Lincoln.

Sunderland lost 2-0 to Bristol Rovers in their final match before the League One season was curtailed due to the pandemic in March 2020
Image: Sunderland lost 2-0 to Bristol Rovers in their final match before the League One season was curtailed due to the pandemic in March 2020

What was perhaps most eye-catching was the way their defensive performances improved after Parkinson's appointment; they conceded just 13 goals in his 24 games in charge that season and kept 11 clean sheets, which was no doubt the driving force behind their resurgence towards the play-off places.

By March 7, the Black Cats were seventh on 59 points, just three points behind second-placed Rotherham as the play-off chase grew more congested.

Everything was about to change, though.

On March 13 2020, all elite football in England was suspended until April due to the coronavirus outbreak. That was then extended until June, when League One and League Two clubs voted to bring an immediate end to the 2019/20 season and decide final league placings by dividing points won by games played.

With 16 wins, 11 draws and nine defeats from their 36 games to that point, Sunderland's average points-per-game total was 1.64, which saw them drop to eighth. Wycombe (1.74), Oxford, Portsmouth and Fleetwood (all 1.71).

Michael Dunne's verdict: "Most Sunderland fans were quite frustrated with how the previous season finished. Frustration at losing our best prospect, the constant drawing of matches that we should have won and a lack of investment in the summer left fans reeling.

"From the very beginning, Ross was under pressure from all angles. It appears the board were feeling the pressure and after a mixture of results in the early months of the season, Ross was sacked.

"After a drawn-out process, Parkinson took over in a most underwhelming of appointments. His first few months were a disaster. Parkinson's style of play was agricultural and after a wretched run of form which left Sunderland stuttering in the bottom half at Christmas, there was a lot of apathy towards the club and it's ownership. This wasn't helped by the omission of star player McGeady. In truth, Sunderland got what they deserved."

2020/21 - Silverware secured, but a second play-off campaign falls flat

At the start of the year, Stewart Donald had made clear his intention to sell the club, with many fans disillusioned under his ownership and this continued into the summer, with the financial uncertainty surrounding a post-Covid future a stumbling block for interested parties.

French businessman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus (centre) became chairman of the club in February 2021
Image: French businessman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus (centre) became chairman of the club in February 2021

The Black Cats chalked up a steady stream of points throughout the first two months of the season, which kept them in and around the play-off picture, but after two failed attempts to exit League One previously, this was widely seen as an insufficient effort. On November 29 2020, Parkinson was relieved of his duties.

Lee Johnson soon took over after five months out of work and steered the club back into the top six on a permanent basis after nine wins from 12 during a purple patch between February and April. This coincided with a timely change in ownership as French businessman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus took over as chairman.

Sunderland won the competition for the first time in their history when they beat Tranmere at Wembley in March 2021
Image: Sunderland won the Papa John's Trophy for the first time in their history when they beat Tranmere at Wembley in March 2021

If that wasn't enough, during this time, Sunderland saw off MK Dons and Lincoln on their way to the Papa John's Trophy final, which they lifted for the first time in their history with a 1-0 win over Tranmere at Wembley on March 14. Sadly, that was where the celebrations peaked.

Though Johnson's men were still on course to nip into the top two if they maintained their momentum, instead it dropped away completely. They won just one of their final nine league games and set up a semi-final clash with Lincoln, with Tom Hopper's second leg goal sending the Imps to Wembley and prematurely dumping the Wearsiders out of contention.

Image: Lee Johnson's men lost 3-2 on aggregate to Lincoln in the 2020/21 League One play-off semi-final

Speaking after the defeat, Johnson said: "It is a difficult moment as the boys and everybody have worked so hard and this is a really big club you see today. And we have to earn the right to be at the next level and for whatever reason over the 46 games and the play-offs, we have not.

"Therefore we have to show the standard... and we have to keep building on that."

Michael Dunne's verdict: "In pre-season, there was still much discontent towards Parkinson and the club. The club wanted ownership sorted out and there was very little positivity around the team in general. Form was patchy yet again, with Sunderland dropping points to teams they should have been beaten convincingly.

"Johnson got the fans on side early and, with his attractive brand of football, it seemed like things were going in the right direction. Charlie Wyke was in the form of his life and Aiden McGeady was drafted back into the team. For a few months after Christmas, Sunderland looked like the form team but similar to the first season, they faded and performances became somewhat inconsistent near the end."

2021/22 - Neil steers Black Cats out of the wilderness

Sunderland started the fourth season in League One with the bit between their teeth and flirted with top spot on several occasions after seven wins from their opening nine games, which included a 5-0 drubbing of Cheltenham at the Stadium of Light.

They continued to score freely, but at the same time, their worrying tendency to ship three or more goals against promotion rivals proved to be a cause for concern - for context, over the course of the month between October 2 and November 2, they lost 4-0 to Portsmouth, 5-1 to Rotherham and 3-0 to Sheffield Wednesday. That said, the Black Cats ended 2021 top of the league after exacting revenge on the Owls with a 5-0 thumping on December 30.

Sunderland ended 2021 top of League One after a 5-0 win at home to Sheffield Wednesday
Image: Sunderland ended 2021 top of League One after a 5-0 win at home to Sheffield Wednesday

There was a rocky start to the year, however, and after a 6-0 humbling away at Bolton on January 29, Johnson became the club's latest managerial casualty as they plotted to finally end their exile in the third tier.

Alex Neil was appointed on February 11 with the Black Cats in the play-off places, but only just due to patchy form and a handful of other teams jostling with one another with a third of the season to play. The Scot drew his first game 1-1 away at AFC Wimbledon and then lost his second 2-1 to MK Dons.

The pieces of the puzzle began to come together thereafter and they went unbeaten in the final 13 matches, though it was still not enough to snare one of the two automatic promotion places, the second of which was taken by Rotherham, who bettered Sunderland's haul of 84 points by six.

Ex-Preston and Norwich boss Alex Neil replaced Lee Johnson on February 11 2022
Image: Ex-Preston and Norwich boss Alex Neil replaced Lee Johnson on February 11 2022

So for a third time in four seasons, a play-off campaign followed. Patrick Roberts' 93rd-minute second-leg winner saw Neil's side past Sheffield Wednesday and set up a meeting with Wycombe at Wembley. And for all of the struggles they had experienced beforehand, goals from Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart was all it took to secure a comfortable play-off final win and a return to the Championship.

The music to the Sunderland fans' ears, however, is that Neil is not recognising the victory as the be-all and end-all for the club. "This club shouldn't be where it is," he told Sky Sports. "This is the first step towards getting us back where we want to be.

Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart scored as Sunderland beat Wycombe 2-0 to secure a Championship return on May 21
Image: Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart scored as Sunderland beat Wycombe 2-0 to secure a Championship return on May 21

"This a Championship club, and we aspire to be even better than that."

Michael Dunne's verdict: "Last season, there was quite a bit of optimism around Sunderland. The club were implementing their new identity of playing attacking football with a team littered with young prospects. The early season form was positive and Sunderland were recording regular wins.

"As Christmas approached, Sunderland were still looking in a strong position but there was growing concern that the heavy defeats they were shipping every few games was becoming a little too regular. Things came to a head in January after their 6-0 away defeat to Bolton. After a brief flirtation with the idea of a return for Roy Keane, Alex Neil replaced Johnson.

"Neil changed the fortunes for Sunderland. He brought a steely approach to the club and with some shrewd business from the club in January, Sunderland became a difficult team to break down and with attacking players like Ross Stewart, Patrick Roberts and Alex Pritchard shining, Sunderland appeared to find the right blend.

"After an exhilarating last-gasp play-off win at Hillsborough, Sunderland fans were dreaming of promotion at Wembley against Wycombe. They dealt with things professionally and were comfortable in a 2-0 win. The appointment of Neil was no doubt a masterstroke."

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