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It has taken a while, but Sunderland have finally stopped dropping and they will return to the Championship next season. Their play-off final win over Wycombe Wanderers in front of 72,000 fans at Wembley, of which around two thirds were from Sunderland, brought four years of exile in League One to an end. Attention will soon turn to how to kick on again from here, but there are plenty of reasons why Sunderland and their fans should be enthusiastic about their chances in the Championship next season.
The biggest reason Sunderland fans can feel optimistic about the Championship next season is also the biggest reason they got there: Alex Neil.
Lee Johnson does deserve a mention here, because he was the man in charge for most of the games. However, it was Neil who was in charge for the ones that really mattered.
The truth is that Sunderland were in full-blown collapse mode when Neil took over. They were haemorrhaging goals and losing games. A 6-0 defeat at Bolton cost Johnson his job and Sunderland lost the following two matches as well, to bottom club Doncaster and then Cheltenham.
It took Neil a few games to arrest that slide as he drew his debut at AFC Wimbledon before losing his first game at the Stadium of Light against MK Dons on February 19. That game remains the only match Neil has lost as Sunderland manager.
With Neil, though, it's not just a case of a manager on a decent run. He has performed very well in the Championship before and has a promotion to the Premier League to his name too. He has never feared that level before so he is unlikely to start now with the backing of the biggest club he has ever managed behind him.
Whenever a club gets promoted to any level, the first position they will generally be worried about is up front.
The higher the division, the harder it is to score. Players who can put the ball in the net regularly are rare, expensive and notoriously difficult to get. That, though, is a problem that Sunderland will not have.
Ross Stewart, or Loch Ness Drogba if you prefer (which you should), has been an absolute revelation at Sunderland in his first full season.
His goals tally of 26 should be impressive enough, but what really stands Stewart apart is the variety of goals he is able to score. At 6ft 4in he is a powerful player in the air but also incredibly quick, making him a genuine threat in behind, and a good finisher with both feet.
Had Sunderland failed to get promoted, the vultures would have been circling and they would have likely been forced to cash in. However, now they go into the Championship with a ready-made goal-threat.
Blackpool have just done it
Look at the 2021/22 Championship table and you'll see play-off winners Blackpool were the best performing club of the three promoted from League One. The Tangerines were largely safe in mid-table all season, while Hull City and Peterborough harboured relegation fears, with the latter immediately dropping back into League One. In three of the last six seasons, the League One play-off winners have gone on to establish themselves in the Championship, and none will claim to have the resources and pulling power of Sunderland. While it obviously offers no guarantees, it also shows there is little to fear within the Championship right now, particularly in the bottom half.
Core of players able to step up to Championship level
While Ross Stewart has grabbed most of the headlines for Sunderland this season, there is plenty of talent around him who have done it before in the Championship.
Alex Pritchard, for instance, has not only been a star at that level before but he's done it under Neil too. Patrick Roberts is another who has plenty of Championship, and even Champions League, experience.
The experienced duo of Corry Evans and Danny Batth offer a lot of Championship pedigree down the spine of the team too.
Neither Elliot Embleton or Denis Cirkin have played at Championship level before, but both look a cut above League One already and still have plenty of development left in them, and another Sunderland youngster, Dan Neil, has already attracted interest from the Premier League.
Luke O'Nien also turned down Championship offers last summer to remain at Sunderland when he was a free agent.
Fanbase will attract players
Sunderland have not had much in recent years of which other clubs will be envious, but the fanbase they have has remained remarkable. In fact, if anything it has shone brighter than ever before.
Gutted for us but was quite a sight and noise watching you guys celebrate 👏🏼 pic.twitter.com/lznXCO3jWf
— Matthew Rayner (@matthewrayner) May 23, 2022
Unsurprisingly, Sunderland had the highest average attendance in League One. An incredible 33,062 Mackems backed the team every other week at the Stadium of Light in the third tier of English football, a full 10,000 more than Sheffield Wednesday attracted. That average figure doesn't even include the 44,742 that watched their play-off semi-final first leg.
That's a figure no current Championship club can match, and you'd expect it to go up again next season too.
Attendances aren't everything, of course, but what it does show is that Sunderland will be very much a big fish in the Championship pond when it comes to attracting new players.
Room to manoeuvre in market
Being able to attract players is all well and good, but it doesn't do you any good if you have no room to manoeuvre in the transfer market.
That shouldn't be an issue for Sunderland this summer, though.
Jack Clarke and Nathan Broadhead have been important players on loan, but when they leave they will at least create room for others to arrive. The same can be said of central defender Callum Doyle.
The futures of German duo Leon Dajaku and Thorben Hoffmann are less clear as promotion may mean an obligation to buy, but if it's just an option the club may opt to move on from the former Bayern Munich duo.
Meanwhile, there will be more players leaving the club on a free transfer to create some significant room on the wage bill. Jermain Defoe has already gone, and Aiden McGeady should follow him out the door. You would also expect injury-plagued defensive duo Jordan Willis and Arbenit Xhemajli to be released, as well as goalkeeper Lee Burge.
Those are all experienced players on significant money who have barely featured at all for Sunderland during their promotion campaign. Once the transfer market opens, Sunderland will have the financial freedom to bring in fresh faces without having to worry about losing any of the quality core that got them promoted.
Sunderland fans don't need to be told about momentum. In fact they have been held hostage by it for a good while now.
Momentum is a strange thing at Sunderland. It seems to take a long time to build, making it genuinely difficult to generate, but once it kicks in it's very difficult to stop.
That's why when Sunderland are bad, they tend to be very bad. They are 'break your own record for lowest Premier League points total ever' bad or, more recently, 'go from Premier League to League One in 13 months' bad.
Sunderland's four-year stay in League One was largely a result of them being crushed by their own downward momentum. They fell so hard and so fast that it took them two years in League One just to slow it down. It wasn't until year three in the third tier that it felt like the descent had finally been brought to a halt.
Now, though, it feels like it has finally turned and upward momentum is starting to gather some pace. That doesn't happen all that often at Sunderland, but when it does it is good - 'Championship to European Golden Boot winner and stuffing Chelsea 4-1 in 18 months' good, or 'bottom of the Championship to promoted as champions in less than a season' good.
It's not a gimme, it must be stressed, and a good start to the 2022/23 season will be essential in all this, but while it takes a long time to get Sunderland moving, once they are they generally take a lot of stopping.
The article Seven reasons why Sunderland can be confident about their chances in the Championship appeared first on Planetsport.com.