Famous American comedian Groucho Marx once sarcastically quipped “a black cat crossing your path indicates that the animal is going somewhere.” They’re one of many but Sunderland are indeed going somewhere, and the Black Cats are serious contenders for promotion in the Championship this season.
With the top two all but wrapped up, the race fo the play-offs is hotting up with Reading in 16th just six points off the top six. Tony Mowbray’s team, who were only promoted to this level last year through the League One play-offs, have had a storming season so far, leaving any relegation concerns at the wayside as they charge up the table. Even the questionable departure of manager Alex Neil to Stoke (strange move, we know) hasn’t blown them off course as Mowbray has put his own stamp on the north-east giants.
The Mackems have taken to life back in the second tier wonderfully, and have already smashed past the sevens wins they managed when they were relegated back in 2017/18. Their decline, which culminated in the double relegation, was wonderfully portrayed on ‘Sunderland til I Die’ - but might they be about to get back to the Premier League as quickly as they dropped down to League One?
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At the turn of the year it looked like a real possibility. They had two remarkable strikers available and would often tear teams apart; only the top three in the second tier have scored more goals than the Black Cats. But 2023 has not been kind to them. First, Everton recalled Ellis Simms, who had scored seven for the Championship outfit, just so he could swap regular minutes to get hounded by disgruntled fans outside Goodison Park.
That was a setback, sure, but they would be truly devastated in their last match - the FA Cup tie at Fulham. Influential striker Ross Stewart, who has top-scored with 11 and is without a doubt one of the finest forwards at this level, picked up an Achilles injury that has ruled him out for the rest of the season.
It comes as a mighty blow for Mowbray, who relied upon Stewart’s physicality to create space for others and his finishing ability to make the difference in key moments. Sunderland have scored in their last ten matches and the forward area of the pitch has been one of positivity and vibrancy so far this term, with Amad Diallo and Patrick Roberts perfectly complimenting the starting striker.
But now without the influential Stewart, they will have to find another way. Joe Gelhardt’s arrival from Leeds United on loan is a coup but he is not the same profile as forward as Stewart. A lot will depend on how Isaac Lihadji settles into life in England. A January signing from Lille, the 20-year-old arrives with a lot of talent but just two senior goals to his name. A leopard may not be able to change its spots, but can the Black Cats adapt to succeed without Ross Stewart?
This season was, and still is, one of immense opportunity. Middlesbrough are now up to third after a stunning run of form under Michael Carrick, but the door is wide open for any of the clubs in mid-table to string results together and make a case for promotion. Sunderland, placed in ninth just two points off sixth place Blackburn Rovers, are certainly in contention to strike.
And this could be the season to do it.
As we have seen with the likes of Norwich City and Southampton in the past, the best time to get promoted in the Championship is often the first season back. The feel-good factor around the club has certainly returned after years of misery and with some decent investment, now they have put together a team that can compete at this level.
The Championship is also unlikely to be this weak next season. Burnley aside, the other two relegated Premier League teams have not performed at their maximum level yet. Watford have suffered a plethora of injuries so are likely to improve over the coming months, while Norwich basically wasted half the season with Dean Smith. Now they are looking like a force again under David Wagner.
Aside from the three relegated teams and Sheffield United, there were no real standouts for promotion in pre-season. Luton Town have battled their way up to fourth, Blackburn, with one draw to their name in the league, have been hit and miss, while West Bromwich Albion and Coventry City spent the first few months of the season flirting with, or deep in, the relegation zone. Yet now both are back in play-off contention.
Next term, the likes of Everton, Southampton and Bournemouth could be in the Championship - and all three will be strong in the second tier. This magical division will always have its ebbs and flows but it feels like there is a golden opportunity for Sunderland. With a fully fit Stewart they would have fancied their chances of breaking the top six. Without him, it could prove to be a stretch too far.