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From League One to Premier League Playoffs: The Unlikely Story of Sunderland’s Sensational Season

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Equestro Etino, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

suffering back-to-back relegations out of the Premier League and the Championship in the 16/17 and 17/18 seasons, Sunderland verge on back-to-back promotions after reaching the Premier League playoff positions in their first season back in the championship.

Coming into the season with a relatively inexperienced squad at Championship level and having gained promotion to the division through the playoffs in their previous campaign, it would have been an impressive season for the Black Cats to navigate themselves clear of the relegation places in a comfortable fashion.

Furthermore, with injuries to key members of the first team and losing the manager that achieved their promotion last campaign, one would have thought that Sunderland would be in a reasonable amount of trouble heading towards the end of the season.

However, to quite the contrary, Sunderland has turned the division on its head by qualifying for the Premier League playoff positions in their first season back in the Championship, beating Preston North End 3-0 on the final day of the season, relying on other scorelines to secure them 6th in the league table.

Playing some of the most fluid and attractive football that a Championship side could offer, the North-East outfit has been astoundingly expansive, combining neatly to score team goals of beauty at times, blowing sides away with their superior technical ability.

The loss of Alex Neil

Although Sunderlands’ journey to the top six places has been all but smooth, coming into this season with Alex Neil in charge, hoping that under his leadership they could steadily progress.

Neil previously secured them a position in the Championship, beating Wycombe Wanderers 2-0 in the final of the promotion play-offs.

The former Sunderland manager also got off to a great start in the Championship, collecting eight points from his opening five games in charge.

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With a reformed and effervescent atmosphere at the Stadium of Light and an exciting group of talented youngsters to work alongside, who would want to leave a club with such potential? Well, that is a question that many of the Sunderland faithful posed themselves on the morning of August 28, 2022.

Due to the nature of Neil’s contract with Sunderland, he was allowed to negotiate with other clubs while still occupying the managerial role at the club, a stipulation of the contract that Stoke City capitalised upon.

It was then swiftly announced that Neil would no longer be in charge of Sunderland, and Stoke City announced the arrival of their new head coach.

When questioned over the bizarre switch of clubs, Neil claimed that ‘off-the-pitch’ factors were the reason he made the change, saying:

“There are two facets to being a manager: what happens on and off the pitch. What happened on the pitch at Sunderland was superb. Players, staff, and fans deserve credit. Other requirements are needed for me to do the job as much as I can, and they are better suited here [at Stoke]. It’s not fair for me to go into more detail than that.”

Following Neil’s departure, it was vital that Sunderland found the right man to take them forward, someone who could get the best out of the young talent at the club.

Fitting the description, Tony Mowbray was quickly targeted by Sunderland chairman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and appointed by the club on August 30, 2022, only two days after Neil’s exit.

Injury Crisis

Mowbray had to adjust quickly to life at the Stadium of Light, as key members of the squad he had inherited were lost for lengthy spells, most crucially Scottish forward Ross Stewart.

Integral to bringing the Coal Cats to the Championship, Stewart netted 26 times last season and did not take long to translate his form to the next tier of English football, scoring 10 times in a mere 13 appearances.

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Missing 3/4 of this season, Sunderland was left without the talismanic services of the lethal Scotsman, forcing Mowbray to reimagine his side and still be a formidable attacking threat.

Further damaging the club’s attacking options, loanee Ellis Simms was called back from parent club Everton in January by Frank Lampard, after displaying a run of good form for the red and white army, scoring seven goals in Stewart’s absence.

Sunderland then went on to replace Simms with Leeds United forward Joe Gelhardt, although he was not able to offer the same return in front of goal as Simms, scoring only three times since joining the club on loan.

Adding further to the issue, Mowbraw encountered a disastrous injury spell towards the back end of the season, losing all three of their centrebacks to injury by the time the final kick of the season came about, leaving right-back Trai Hume and central midfielder Luke Onien to fill in at the heart of the defence.

Aji Alese was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a thigh injury in early March, depleting both a left-back and a centreback option for the Black Cats.

Daniel Ballard and Danny Batth formed an impressive partnership in central defence for Sunderland this season, but with Ballard picking up a hamstring injury in early April and Batth obtaining a knee injury later in the month, the club were left to get over the line without a centre-half available.

Amad Diallo

However, that did not stop Sunderland in their pursuit of the golden ticket to the pinnacle of English football, reinventing themselves consistently across the season, with one man at the epicentre of the club’s pursuit of a return to the big time, Amad Diallo.

They say never fall in love with a loanee, but in this case, how could Sunderland fans do anything other?

The 20-year-old forward has mesmerised the Championship this season, showing moments of quality across his entire game and displaying serious signs of being a future threat to £86 million winger Antony’s position.

His low centre of gravity and ability to shift the ball quickly allows him to glide past defenders at ease at times, looking simply too good to play in the division.

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Couple this with his appetite to drive into the box and mentality to want to get a shot off, Diallo has provided astonishing moments of individual quality, with highlight-reel-worthy finishes, dribbles, and passes.

Regardless of how Sunderland’s season pans out from here on in, the young Ivorian is destined to play Premier League-level football and will likely be involved in the English first tier next season.

Scoring 13 goals this campaign, it can be easy to forget that this is Diallo’s first full season playing in professional football, leaving plenty of room for progression, which could be a serious issue for opposition defenders.

Youthful Approach

Although Diallo is not the only Sunderland player that has room for progression, the squad is the youngest in the division, fielding the youngest starting XI in the Championship this season by some distance, averaging an age of 22.5 years in their 2-1 away victory against West Bromwich Albion.

Since buying into the club in February 2021, Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has swayed the direction of the club into a much different path than that of the former majority stakeholder, Stewart Donald.

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They went from a side that was chasing their way back to the big time, lumping out large sums of money on inexperienced players who were past their best years, spending £3 million on Will Grigg on January deadline day in 2019.

Now, the club is in a much healthier and more sustainable position, investing its money in young talent from abroad and youth academies from Premier League outfits while also developing academy talents and building a squad for the future.

Promoting into the Championship through the playoffs last season, Sunderland needed to make signings in order to ensure survival in the league, making 12 acquisitions in the summer, followed by a further four in January.

Not one of the 16 signings consisted of a single player over the age of 24, with 12 of the players being 21 or younger.

Finishing in the top six spots, the long-term vision and strategy that Sunderland has put in place may need to be fast-tracked next season if they are to make the leap into the top flight.

Can Sunderland win the playoffs?

When it comes to the likelihood of Sunderland achieving Premier League promotion, who knows? The playoffs are impossible to predict.

They come into the playoffs in good form, undefeated in their last nine games after the 2-1 defeat at home to Sheffield United.

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Weirdly enough, while providing one of the best atmospheres in the country, Sunderland has actually been more productive on away turf this season, and as the first leg of the playoff tie is at the Stadium of Light, it potentially gives the advantage to Luton Town, as they have the second-best away record in the league this season.

Although Sunderland is also a strong outfit away from home, if they can keep themselves from losing the first leg, they will feel confident that they can progress into the final, as Luton is likewise not as strong at Kenilworth Road as they are at opposition grounds.

Many have suggested that after only one season in the Championship and with such a young, inexperienced squad, it could be too early for Sunderland to gain promotion to the Premier League.

However, Tony Mowbray passionately disagrees with the sentiment that has been put forward, saying: “It’s never too soon to get to the Premier League.

“It has the riches to build your club faster. So even if you go up and come down, you have greater resource and much greater parachute payments to keep bringing in better players.

“At the moment, with the finances of the Championship, it’s going to take a few more windows to grow the football club.”

Sunderland could claim £90 million if they were able to gain a shock promotion, and if invested properly on top of the talent they already have, it could provide them with the tools to effectively fight off relegation in the following season.

All-in-all, regardless of whether they gain promotion or not, it has been a monumental effort from the management, players, staff, and fans to get to the position they already have; promotion would just be the cherry on top.

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