Will Sunderland overcome their League One fatigue?
Sunderland are back in the play-offs and with a new owner, new manager and many of the current squad out of contract this summer, is this the last dance on Wearside for this current crop of Sunderland
Sunderland are back in the play-offs and with a new owner, new manager and many of the current squad out of contract this summer, is this the last dance on Wearside for this current crop of Sunderland players?
"We're suffering from League One fatigue," says an exasperated Micky Lough, a lifelong Sunderland fan and member of the 'Wise Men Say' fan podcast team.
"There was a purity to our first season in League One, the shackles were off, but now it feels like every defeat for Sunderland in this division is so magnified, it feels like an indignity, an impending disaster."
Sunderland go into their play-off semi-final, first-leg against Lincoln on Wednesday in a rotten run of form, after blowing their games in hand and a chance of sneaking into the top two - only winning one of their last nine games.
"It's hard for fans to push themselves to go again after everything we've been through and our recent form," continues Lough. "Teams have been coming to the Stadium of Light and have had a nice time, particularly with no fans. They've enjoyed the facilities, big stadium, good playing surface, they've came here and expressed themselves - they see us as a free hit."
Lee Johnson has lived up to his 'streaky' reputation so far in his six months in charge of the club - going unbeaten for 11 games through February and March and then following it up with just seven points out of a possible 27 during April and May.
However, the club has had its fair share of issues to contend with. There was a Covid outbreak in the squad just weeks into Johnson's arrival, which hampered the integral early stages of his reign, and a defensive injury crisis that has seen two midfielders playing in the back four for the majority of 2021.
"It's bizarre," says former Sunderland captain Michael Gray. "Everything looked great at the start for Johnson. We were playing good football, we had games in hand, there was a point where we actually thought we were going to win the league, and then for some strange reason results started to turn the other way.
"Something's clearly gone wrong over the past few weeks. Is it fatigue from the season? Is it the lack of fans?
"Or has the expectation weighed a little bit too much on the players? Is this squad good enough to get us promoted? Do we need an overhaul of players to match the ambitions of our fresh, young chairman who wants success?"
The core of Sunderland's current squad were playing in their last play-off campaign two seasons ago under Jack Ross. It ended in a traumatic last-gasp defeat to old foes Charlton at Wembley, and the dream of an automatic bounce-back to the Championship was dashed.
Max Power, Luke O'Nien, Chris Maguire, Grant Leadbitter, Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady all featured in that 2019 final and are still regular fixtures in the Black Cats' squad this time around.
All of the above players' contracts are up in the summer, along with another 11 first-teamers.
"Every single player at that club at this present time is fighting for their future," added Gray. "The only exception is Luke O'Nien, he is the only player in that current squad, I believe, that deserves to be part of Sunderland going forward.
"Why aren't Sunderland running away with League One? We're a massive club. If we don't go up this time around, it'll be a lot more difficult next season with the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, Wycombe and Rotherham coming down - it gets harder the longer you're down there."
Gray knows all about the play-offs, having played in one of the most memorable play-off finals in recent memory and missing the decisive penalty in their 1998 loss to Charlton. But that day Sunderland had a dressing room of Kevin Ball, Niall Quinn, Kevin Phillips, Lee Clark, Nicky Summerbee and Chris Makin who helped grab the club by the scruff of the neck the following season and lead them to promotion with a record-breaking points tally.
"You need heart and desire in the play-offs," says Gray. "But you also need a goalscorer and we've got that in Charlie Wyke, and we have one of the most talented players in the league in Aiden McGeady.
"Lynden Gooch is a big-game player. Max Power and Grant Leadbitter have got that much-needed experience as well.
"But, at the end of the day, these players have been trying to get out of this division for three years now, and they've not managed to succeed."
However, this is not like previous seasons, there is hope on Wearside, in the form of a 23-year-old Frenchman.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus acquired a majority shareholding in the Sky Bet League One club in February and is one of three heirs to the Louis Dreyfus Company which amassed sales of over £33 billion last year.
KLD, as he is known, has football in his blood, and despite his tender years, he has been educated in the game since an early age with his late father, Robert, being Marseille's largest shareholder from the mid-nineties until his death in 2009, when control of the club was handed to his mother, Margarita.
He also studied at the RIASA (the Richmond International Academic & Soccer Academy) in 2017 and has already begun to make his presence felt in the boardroom, axing executives and restructuring the club.
"He has methodically gone about correcting things that clearly needed to be addressed," says Phil Smith, football writer at the Sunderland Echo.
"He's made some really important appointments behind the scenes and he's addressed the real big problems with the structure of the club.
"But the first tests come along in pressurised moments and when the club ends the season, whether in success or in failure, how he deals with that, will be his first major test."
Alongside the new owner, Sunderland have broken their 36-year-old losing streak at Wembley with their Papa John's Trophy win over Tranmere, a hoodoo that plagued the build-up to their two finals in 2019.
Smith believes there are reasons for optimism ahead of Wednesday night's clash at Sincil Bank.
"So many of the things that have held the club back in the past appear to have been addressed. No matter how this season ends, the club is in a stronger position than it was.
"These next two games will be a challenge for Sunderland, they finished fourth for a reason, I don't think they're one of the best teams in League One - but they do have as much chance as any of the other teams in there, there's not much between them."
Regardless of the outcome of this season's League One play-offs, there are going to be major changes on Wearside this summer.
These next two games will be the last dance for a large number of this current Sunderland squad - will they go down in Mackem folklore and secure their legacy, or will they be swept away by the incoming tide like many before them?
We'll soon find out…