SUPERB SUNDERLAND: ARE THE BLACK CATS BACK?
If you had said six weeks ago that Sunderland beating Burton 3-0 was an impressive result for ‘The Black Cats’, you would’ve been mistaken, with the Brewers comfortably the worst team in the league.
Since then, a stale Albion side has been transformed under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink after they signed almost a whole new team in January, they’ve become very hard to beat and incredibly strong defensively.
The Brewers are now back in amongst it at the bottom of League One, but ever-improving Sunderland were too good for them on Saturday to further enhance the feel-good factor in the north-east after a week that saw them reach Wembley once more and the completion of the long-awaited takeover.
The appointment of Lee Johnson has had a significant part to play in this change in fortunes, a manager who was known for going on long streaks of form at Bristol City, both good and bad ones.
It was one bad streak too many for the west country club in the summer, which saw Johnson leave after more than four years at Ashton Gate.
He undoubtedly left the club in a better position than he found it, reaching a Carabao Cup semi-final and being on the fringes of the Championship play-offs for most of that spell.
That meant his reputation didn’t suffer that much from the departure in July, so it was an eye-catching appointment for League One Sunderland at the start of December.
It was far from an ideal start, with a covid outbreak at the club halting things for a couple of weeks, but they’ve really got going now as ‘The Black Cats’ look to get out of the third tier at the third time of asking.
Johnson had taken charge of a home game with Wigan on the day he got the job, which they understandably lost 1-0, but after that, Sunderland went seven unbeaten either side of the two-week break.
That included a 4-0 win at then-league leaders Lincoln and a hat-trick for Charlie Wyke in a 3-0 victory at Wimbledon.
Another comfortable away win, this time at Stadium MK, saw them move one away from a return to the EFL Trophy final that they made in 2019.
The momentum was slightly reduced by a loss to in-form Shrewsbury, but then came one of the most noteworthy feats of the EFL season so far.
Wyke continued his brilliant form by scoring four goals in a 4-1 home win over Doncaster, with all four unbelievably assisted by Aiden McGeady.
However, Johnson’s side took their foot off the pedal in the closing stages of that one and were lucky to win it by that margin in the end.
The improvement under Johnson has got Wyke scoring for fun, with the striker receiving better service now, and he was at it again in midweek to take the EFL Trophy semi-final with Lincoln to penalties, which Sunderland came through.
They suffered double disappointment at Wembley two years ago, so will be keen to put that right against Tranmere in a few weeks, but all focus will be on promotion, with the form since the change in management putting them back inside the playoffs, eight points behind the top two.
Due to the form of Peterborough and Lincoln in particular, doing so automatically may be a step too far, but with Johnson at the helm, things are looking up, along with the new owners that will end the reign of Stewart Donald, a man who the fans had wanted out of the club for a couple of years.
23-year-old Frenchman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus was first linked with the club a few months ago and took over late last week, continuing a tradition in his family, with his parents involved in Marseille.
They were more influential in the south of France in the past than they are now, with Louis-Dreyfus’ mother still holding a small stake in the club, but from a young age he was always part of the behind-the-scenes operation at Marseille, so for a 23-year-old, he’s relatively experienced in the field of football ownership.
It’s quite a wealthy family, so Sunderland fans are understandably excited about the future, and the new regime have already introduced a new and improved streaming service at the club within a few days of being handed the keys.
All things at the Stadium of Light are looking positive, but their fans have become complacent before in League One, and there is still a long, long road to go for Sunderland to return to the Championship, but at long last, they have taken the first steps along that road.