Huge support from Sunderland saw Alex Neil’s side celebrate victory at Wembley
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 after losing their last three play-off finals, the most recent in 2019.
Goals from Elliot Embleton and Ross Stewart ensured there was no disappointment for the 46,000 fans.
“My emotions are one of satisfaction and relief,” Neil told ` Radio Newcastle.
“For what we could deliver for so many people there was 46,000 here, so many in Trafalgar Square. My job here has always been to please people and give them something they crave.
“It makes me the proudest person in the world right now because we’ve accomplished this and I’m more happy for them than anyone.
“I don’t get too high on too many things. My fear in football is letting people down – as a player, coach or manager – and that gives me great satisfaction.”
We had to start fast, says defender Batth
Danny Batth and his fellow defenders had to stay on the ball to deal with Wycombe’s threat
One of the defensive heroes at Wembley for Sunderland, while Alex Pritchard, Stewart and Patrick Roberts provided the cutting edge at the other end, was defender Danny Batth.
The 31-year-old, who helped Wolves recover from their relegation to the third division earlier in his career with promotions to the Premier League, added another notable achievement to his CV with the Black Cats.
“It was up to us to give the fans something to celebrate,” Batth told ` Radio Newcastle.
“They have had disappointments in recent years so it was important that we showed we are ready and need to start fast.
“Scoring the first goal was our priority and we believed in it. We knew we could do it.
“As the game developed we felt we had the majority of the territory and possession and that’s thanks to the way the manager set us up.”
Started by Johnson, finished by Neil
The influence of the former Norwich and Preston boss since he joined the club in February can certainly be measured in stats, with a 16-game defeat and a play-off run that culminated in a return to the Second Division.
Man of the Match Pritchard said he felt the Scot had made Sunderland “more solid” and it’s clear the players have embraced his philosophy as he’s earned respect at Wearside.
“What Neil has done since he came to the club deserves a lot of credit,” former captain Gary Bennett told ` Radio Newcastle.
“He realized there were too many young players in the team and wanted more experience.
“The way he approaches every game, he looks at every game and looks at weaknesses and strengths. He looks at the bigger picture.”
` Radio Newcastle’s Total Sport presenter Simon Pryde told ` Sport: “He’s streamlined defence, changed form, enjoyed lively but good-natured exchanges with journalists and – most importantly – produced results.
“Sunderland went to Wembley after 15 games unbeaten. The tide has turned. No more new lows for a while at least, but maybe a fresh start.”
There were mentions of former boss Lee Johnson from the players in their post-game commitments, while praising Neil’s work in making the job a reality.
johnson, released at the end of January after a 6-0 loss to Bolton, had laid some of the foundations for that success during his 13-month tenure.
He led the Black Cats to the playoffs last season only to lose to Lincoln in the semifinals and they were third in League One, just two points off the top when he left.
“Johnson deserves a mention,” added ex-Black Cats forward Marco Gabbiadini. “Sunderland went into Christmas with more than two points per game return.
“I think he would have made a good attempt to get Sunderland over the line. The players were faltering and at that point he didn’t have the players to replace them with.”
A long journey back
Jermain Defoe is feeling the pain of being relegated from the Premier League in 2017 despite scoring 15 league goals
To understand the exhilaration and relief of the scenes at Wembley is to understand the journey.
Since the closure of the shipyards and the decline of mining, there has never been such a miserable time on the banks of the Wear River and its County Durham basin as with Sunderland’s relegation to the third tier of English football.
Back-to-back relegations and a four-year struggle for promotion to the championship were the roots of a rot that has now not only been halted, but is also sprouting green shoots.
Including the unforgettable tenure of David Moyes, who initiated relegation with relegation from the Premier League in May 2017, there have been seven different permanent managers and four during the League One years.
“If for the last five years I was paid a pound for every time a Total Sport fan said ‘This is the lowest point in Sunderland history’ I would feel like I had enough money to buy a Buying season tickets at the stadium of lights,” said presenter Pryde, who has hosted ` Radio Newcastle’s nightly sports show since it began in 2009.
“The thing is, most of these people haven’t exaggerated. Moyes’ miserable relegation from the Premier League, followed by a rapid descent through the Championship, resulted in arguably the darkest period in the club’s history.”
Too painful for the fans and TV gold for the documentarians who signed a deal for a Netflix series about life in the Stadium of Light.
Simon Grayson succeeded Moyes – a smart move on paper given his experience – but he left in November after winning 15 league games.
Chris Coleman, who ignited a nation by guiding Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, was another boss with a CV to match, but again he was unable to avoid relegation as in-house film crew captured every dip.
There was some optimism following a takeover of Texas businessman Ellis Short by Stewart Donald just before the end of the 2017/18 season.
Short’s financial contribution had been undermined in the eyes of fans by poor managerial appointments and player recruitment decisions.
“They replaced the fading pink seats at the Stadium of Light and changed the music the team ran to,” Pryde recalls.
“They drank with fans, they came to ` Radio Newcastle studios and took calls. ‘The **** party stops here,’ said Donald’s sidekick Charlie Methven at one such performance.
“Anyone who has seen the documentary ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’ on Netflix knows that it’s actually only just begun.”
This relationship was also to go wrong later, with Donald sells to the then 23-year-old Swiss Kyril Louis-Dreyfus – Son of ex-Marseille owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus.
But back to football. After reaching League One, ex-Alloa and St Mirren boss Jack Ross was signed in the summer of 2018 after finding promotion success in Scotland under tight budgets – and early signs have been impressive.
Aside from the first two weeks of the regular season and the very last, the Wearsiders have never made the top four, losing just two league games between August and the New Year.
Lynden Gooch [kneeling] and Luke O’Nien were both winners today but easily remember injuries from 2019
However, the sale of top scorer Josh Maja to French club Bordeaux deprived Sunderland of their key goal treasury and proved costly as a win in their last seven games meant automatic promotion disappeared.
Another dreaded play-off season ended in disappointment at Wembley by Charlton, 20 years after their epic penalty shoot-out loss to Addicks after a thrilling 4-4 draw.
Patrick Bauer’s injury-time header once again left the Sunderland players high-pressured and dejected on the National Stadium lawn. It was a familiar topic.
The anticipation, anticipation and pressure to take the club out of the third tier have weighed heavily on managers with Phil Parkinson unable to deliver play-off football after a Covid-hit season – and Lincoln the hopes of Johnson’s side in the ended last season.
Johnson provided silverware with the EFL Trophy but no promotion. However, that Wembley experience has served the club well.
It took Neil’s arrival to put them over the line in the play-offs and he repeated promotion feats at Hamilton and Norwich earlier in his career.