IN the end, the tale of Sunderland’s unsuccessful play-off campaign was effectively the story of the club’s season. A poor start left the Black Cats playing catch-up, and while they rallied impressively, raising hopes that promotion was finally on the cards, ultimately, they had left themselves with too much to do and ran out of steam. As a result, next season will be their fourth in a row in the third tier.

For all that Saturday might have been a dramatic occasion, with the return of 10,000 supporters creating a spine-tingling atmosphere as Lee Johnson’s side threatened to turn things around in the first half, the harsh reality is that Sunderland did not deserve to secure a place in the Championship.

They did not spend a single minute in the automatic-promotion places all season, and while there are undoubtedly mitigating factors for their failure – Covid, injuries to key defenders, the physical and mental exertions that resulted in the Papa John’s Trophy win, the now-familiar upheaval caused by a mid-season change of manager – the brutal truth is that since slipping into League One three years ago, Sunderland’s performances on the pitch have never looked out of place in the third tier. Clearly, that has to change.

The major positive to have emerged from the last 12 months remains the arrival of new owner Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, and the structural overhaul he has promised, and that is already well under way. Some of Louis-Dreyfus’ changes, such as the reorganisation of the academy, will take years to have a meaningful impact on what is happening with the first team. Others though, such as the shift to a more data-driven recruitment operation, should help ensure Sunderland are in a stronger position come the start of next season.

With ‘Plan A’ of a campaign in the Championship now off the table, there will be a huge overhaul of the playing squad this summer. More than a dozen senior players are either out of contract or at the end of their respective loan deals, and a sizeable chunk of the side that played at the weekend will not be seen again. Aiden McGeady, Chris Maguire and Max Power are expected to depart, while Grant Leadbitter’s emotional post-match pause at the side of the pitch suggests he does not expect to be playing for his hometown club again. Sunderland will want to hold on to Charlie Wyke and Denver Hume, who are due to become free agents, but financial reality might make that impossible.

Johnson will be presiding over a markedly-different squad come the start of a new season in early August, and having replaced Phil Parkinson in early December, the 39-year-old is still to conclusively prove that he is the right man for the job.

He dragged Sunderland back into the promotion mix at the start of the year, and can take justified pride in being the manager that finally ended the club’s Wembley hoodoo. He undoubtedly deserves the chance to build his own squad this summer.

However, while injuries conspired against the Black Cats in the final couple of months of the campaign, Johnson might also reflect on some of his own decision-making, which contributed to the sense of a side floundering without a clear direction. Formations were chopped and changed – often in the same game – while players that had previously been out of favour found themselves suddenly recalled. The gamble to recall Tom Flanagan for the first leg of the semi-final backfired, and while the decision to pair Ross Stewart with Wyke on Saturday was an inspired one, it begged the question of why it took Johnson until the final game of the season to make it.