Boss Alex Neil says ending Sunderland’s four-year wait for promotion to the Championship with Saturday’s League One play-off final win over Wycombe makes him the “proudest person”.
The Black Cats arrived at Wembley having lost their previous three play-off finals, the latest in 2019.
Goals from Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart ensured there would be no more disappointment for their 46,000 fans.
“My emotion is satisfaction and relief,” Neil told BBC Radio Newcastle.
“For what we’ve managed to deliver for so many people, there were 46,000 here, so many at Trafalgar Square. My job here has always been to satisfy the people and deliver something that they’ve been craving.
“It makes me the proudest person in the world at the moment with the fact we’ve managed to do that, and I’m so pleased for them more than anybody.
“I don’t get too high with too many things. My fear in football is letting people down – as a player, a coach or a manager – and so that, for me, gives me great satisfaction.”
We had to start fast, says defender Batth
One of the defensive heroes at Wembley for Sunderland, with Alex Pritchard, Stewart and Patrick Roberts providing the cutting edge at the other end, was defender Danny Batth.
The 31-year-old, who helped Wolves recover from their drop into the third tier with promotions up to the Premier League earlier in his career, added another notable achievement to his CV with the Black Cats.
“It was on us to give the fans something to celebrate,” Batth told BBC Radio Newcastle.
“They’ve had disappointments over the past few years so it was important that we showed we were up for it and had to start fast.
“Getting the first goal was our priority and we believed in it. We knew we could do it.
“As the game unfolded, we felt we had the majority of the territory and possession, and that’s credit to the way the manager set us up.”
Started by Johnson, finished by Neil
Former Norwich and Preston boss Neil’s influence since arriving at the club in February can certainly be measured in statistics, with one defeat in 16 games and a play-off surge which has culminated in a return to the second tier.
Man of the match Pritchard said he felt the Scot had made Sunderland “more solid”, and it is clear the players have bought into his philosophy as he has earned respect on Wearside.
“What Neil has done since he came into the club deserves a lot of credit,” former captain Gary Bennett said on BBC Radio Newcastle.
“He identified there were too many young players in the team and wanted more experience.
“The way he goes about each game, he looks at each game and looks at weaknesses and strengths. He looks at the whole picture.”
BBC Radio Newcastle’s Total Sport presenter Simon Pryde told BBC Sport: “He tightened the defense, changed the shape, enjoyed feisty yet good natured exchanges with journalists and – most importantly – got results.
“Sunderland went to Wembley on the back of a 15-match unbeaten run. The tide has turned. No more new lows, for a while at least, but perhaps a new start.”
There were mentions for former boss Lee Johnson by the players in their post-match commitments, while acclaiming the work of Neil in seeing the job to fruition.
Johnson, sacked in late January after a 6-0 thrashing by Bolton, had laid some of the foundations for this achievement during his 13-month stint in charge.
He led the Black Cats to the play-offs last season, only to lose to Lincoln in the semi-finals, and they were third in League One, only two points off the top, when he departed.
“Johnson deserves a mention,” ex-Black Cats striker Marco Gabbiadini added. “Sunderland went into Christmas with a better than two points per game return.
“I think he would have had a good go getting Sunderland over the line. The players started faltering and, at the time, he didn’t have the players to replace them with.”
A long journey back
To understand the elation and the relief of the scenes at Wembley is to understand the journey.
Not since the closure of the shipyards and the decline of mining has there been such a miserable period on the banks of the Wear and their County Durham catchment area, as there has with Sunderland’s slide into the third tier of English football.
Back-to-back relegations and a four-year battle to win promotion to the Championship have been the root point of a rot which has now not only been arrested, but green shoots are finally springing.
Including David Moyes’ forgettable stint in charge, which started the slide with relegation from the Premier League in May 2017, there have been seven different permanent managers, and four during the League One years.
“If I had a pound for every time a fan said, ‘This is the lowest point in Sunderland’s history’, on Total Sport over the past five years, it feels like I’d have enough money to buy a season ticket at the Stadium of Light, “said presenter Pryde, who has hosted the BBC Radio Newcastle’s nightly sports show since it began in 2009.
“The thing is, most of those people weren’t exaggerating. The abject relegation from the Premier League under Moyes, followed by a swift plummet through the Championship led to, undoubtedly, the bleakest period in the club’s history.”
It was all too painful for the fans and TV gold for the documentary makers, who had signed a deal for a Netflix series about life at the Stadium of Light.
Simon Grayson succeeded Moyes – on paper a shrewd move given his experience – but he was gone by November after one win in 15 league games.
Chris Coleman, who galvanized a nation by taking Wales to the Euro 2016 semi-finals, was another boss with a suitable-looking CV but again, with the in-house film crew capturing every slump, he could not stave off the drop.
There was some optimism following a takeover by Stewart Donald from Texan businessman Ellis Short just before the 2017-18 season’s end.
Short’s financial input had been undermined in the eyes of the fans by poor decisions surrounding managerial appointments and player recruitment.
“They replaced the fading, pink seats at the Stadium of Light and they changed the music the team ran out to,” Pryde recalls.
“They drank with fans, they came into the BBC Radio Newcastle studios and took calls. ‘The **** – taking party stops here’, said Donald’s sidekick Charlie Methven in one such appearance.
“Anyone who watched the ‘Sunderland’ Til I Die ‘documentary on Netflix knows that, in fact, it had only just begun.”
Even that relationship was later to go wrong, with Donald selling to Swiss then-23-year-old Kyril Louis-Dreyfus – son of the ex-Marseille owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus.
But, back to the football. Having hit League One, ex-Alloa and St Mirren boss Jack Ross was brought in during the summer of 2018, having achieved promotion success in Scotland under strict budgets – and the early indications were impressive.
Other than the first two weeks of the regular season and the very last, the Wearsiders were never out of the top four and lost just two league games between August and the new year.
However, the sale of top scorer Josh Maja to French side Bordeaux robbed Sunderland of their main goal supply and proved costly as one win in their last seven games saw automatic promotion slip away.
Another dreaded play-off campaign ended in Wembley disappointment at the hands of Charlton, 20 years since the epic loss on penalties to the Addicks after a thrilling 4-4 draw.
Patrick Bauer’s injury-time header again left Sunderland’s players flat out and dejected on the turf of the national stadium. It was a familiar theme.
The anticipation, expectation and pressure of taking the club out of the third tier has weighed heavy on managers as Phil Parkinson was unable to deliver play-off football after a Covid-affected season – and Lincoln ended Johnson’s side’s hopes last term.
Johnson delivered silverware, with the EFL Trophy, but not promotion. That Wembley experience, however, has served the club well.
It took Neil’s arrival to take them over the line in the play-offs, repeating promotion feats at Hamilton and Norwich earlier in his career.