Sunderland Til I Die remains true but another setback would pick at the scars of famous old club

Sunderland’s League One play-off second leg against Lincoln City is a seismic game but Phil Smith argues that the future of the club looks rosier than six months ago regardless of the result

Lee Johnson talks with his Sunderland squad during a break in play in the first leg of their League One play-off semi-final against Lincoln City, which Lincoln won 2-0.

To understand the sense of fatigue on Wearside you need to row back to the bleak days of midwinter.

The arrival of new owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, which in turn sparked the appointments of Kristjaan Speakman as sporting director and Lee Johnson as head coach, was a fundamental reboot of the club's modus operandi.

Sign up to our World of Sport newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This was a club labouring towards nowhere in particular, the effects of short-term decision making under the previous ownership (captured in some form by the famous Netflix series Sunderland ‘Til I Die) manifested in a team that was not entirely uneffective, but showed little signs of making a real push for the top two in League One.

Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, chairman of Sunderland, looks on as the club won the Papa John's Trophy at Wembley.

League One! A third season in the third tier of English football for what was once known as the Bank of England club given their financial power in the English game, and more recently had spent 16 out of 19 seasons in the Premier League.

The revival

Johnson's tenure started with a listless 1-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic in December. Sunderland dominated statistically, but lacked the verve or incision required. Johnson admitted afterwards that he had been 'almost embarrassed' by some of the tentative attacking play from his side.

When a COVID-19 outbreak halted any momentum that came from a 4-0 win at Lincoln City, supporters by and large recognised that this would not be the season.

Tom Hopper, of Lincoln City, scores their side's first goal past Lee Burge of Sunderland during the Sky Bet League One Play-off semi final.

As Louis-Dreyfus watched his first game, an insipid 2-1 defeat to Shrewsbury Town, there was a collective will to dig in. With defensive injuries mounting, there was an appreciation of just how long and winding the road back would be for this proud club.

Then something unexpected happened.

In Dion Sanderson and Luke O'Nien Johnson found a defensive partnership with instant chemistry, pace and quality on the ball aplenty. Players who had previously struggled to make an impact consistently were finding an extra gear.

Emphatic the performances were not, but a steely resolve saw Sunderland find themselves coming out of tight games with the advantage over and over again.

The Black Cats soared to the brink of the top two, sealing a cathartic win at Wembley in the Papa John's Trophy for good measure.

All of a sudden supporters had cause to believe that this project might get a faster start than previously imagined.

The burden of past failures weighs heavy

Sanderson's injury robbed Sunderland of arguably their best player through that unbeaten run, but those fine margins began to go against them all over the pitch.

Luck has not been on the side of the Black Cats, but there have been times when the burden and weight of past failures have looked to be hanging heavy.

Too many games where in adversity, the play has become panicked and rushed, long balls and hopeful crosses that are the hallmark of a side desperate for a break.

Which brings us to Saturday, and a seismic game for the club.

The tie is very clearly still alive. Sunderland are two goals down but they will enjoy the return of 10,000 fans to the Stadium of Light. Regardless of what has happened in recent months, the atmosphere in those opening exchanges will be ferocious and an early goal will change everything.

Far, far stranger things have happened in football. Even if the performance level generally on Wednesday night was poor, Sunderland created enough chances to score at least one goal.

The sense of fate being against this club once more was underlined by the quite superb display from emergency loanee Josef Bursik, who had only signed for Lincoln the night before the game. Bursik, by the way, had arrived at Peterborough United in the hear of the top-two battle and excelled there, too.

Optimism is in short supply for now.

The core of this group has been in place for the best part of three seasons and finishes of fifth, eighth and fourth tells its own story.

This is not a bad League One side by any stretch of the imagination. It has proved over time to be resilient, difficult to beat and statistically their performance level is a match for most. Yet it has also been a team seemingly eternally one step away from where it needs to be.

Supporters are unconvinced that there is the belief and capacity to take that final step and to underline that, consider Johnson's selection dilemmas for the game.

You can count on one hand the number of players who are guaranteed to start based on recent performance levels. Injuries and the realities of inheriting another manager's squad have forced him to be pragmatic, but five months on supporters have yet to get much of a sense of a new era in terms of playing style.

Reasons for hope – but this is a huge game

Sunderland are unmistakably in a better place than they were a year or even two years ago. They are on a better footing financially, and with steps being taken behind the scenes to address the woeful running of all aspects of the club's operations in recent times.

Louis-Dreyfus was at pains to point out in his first and only public comments that failure at this juncture will not lead to him changing course. Though publicly quiet, his appearances at all games (including an U23 fixture at Stoke this week) has projected an image of calm.

The word has consistently been that this is a new era, one in which short-term and knee-jerk decisions will not define the day.

All the same, this is a big game for Sunderland. Above all else for a squad of players for whom defeat could in a number of cases mean a final appearance in a red-and-white shirt.

Regardless of the off-pitch situation, there is a strong sense of a cycle coming to an end and this 90 minutes represents the last chance to ensure it is not the most underwhelming of conclusions.

And even though defeat may not lead to a fundamental change of course, it would be a setback for a club that has gained too many scars in recent times.

All of which makes you appreciate, too, just what an unlikely comeback victory might mean.

Sunderland perhaps does not expect, but come 3.30pm it will hope once again.