February 18, 2021. Sunderland had appointed Lee Johnson in December, playing in their third season of League One football.
Stewart Donald was looking to hand over the club after finishing eighth the previous season as well as struggling to cope with the financial implications of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Enter Kyril Louis-Dreyfus…
At only 23-years-old he became the youngest owner in the EFL but two years on Sunderland find themselves fifth in the Championship with 16 games to go. So what has happened since his arrival?
Breaking the Curse
Only a month after taking control, Sunderland reached the EFL Trophy final against Tranmere Rovers on March 14th. Sunderland had not won at the new Wembley and not won at Wembley since their historic FA Cup win in 1973.
A second half goal from academy graduate Lynden Gooch was the difference between the sides with the win giving fans hope that Sunderland under Louis-Dreyfus would be better than his predecessors.
A Clean Slate
Sunderland finished the 20/21 season in fourth place and were knocked out by Lincoln in the play-off semi-final. Despite this, excitement was high around the fan base following the summer rebuild with Championship quality brought in on free transfer such as Alex Pritchard and Corry Evans.
This was complimented with talented young players from Premier League teams like Dennis Cirkin, Nathan Broadhead and Callum Doyle.
Meanwhile, top scorer Charlie Wyke, captain Max Power were released along with other squad players.
Push For Promotion
Going into January, Sunderland were third in League One and unbeaten since the start of November. Perhaps believing that promotion was a genuine possibility, the Black Cats bolstered their squad with cheap, low risk transfers including the free transfers of Patrick Roberts and Danny Batth as well as a loan deal for Spurs winger Jack Clarke.
Club legend Jermain Defoe was brought back but at 39-years old, it was maybe more for his experience to the young squad than his ability. But this short deal would prove one of the few failures of Louis-Dreyfus’ time in Sunderland so far…
Lee Johnson Leaves
Deadline day saw manager Lee Johnson leave after an embarrassing 6-0 defeat to Bolton despite still being third in the league and losing only twice in 14 games.
The next week saw constant speculation of Roy Keane returning to the club with even Keane refusing to deny the rumours. That is why there was shock and a hint of disappointment when former Preston manager Alex Neil was appointed.
Alex Neil defied critics by ending the campaign unbeaten in 13, playing entertaining football along with having the league’s top scorer Ross Stewart, 26 goals, in great form.
They finished in fifth place with a semi final tie against Sheffield Wednesday, who had been relegated from the Championship the season prior, awaiting them.
Fourth Time Lucky?
Sunderland’s home tie broke the League One attendance record as over 44,000 people packed the Stadium of Light as a Ross Stewart strike in the first half was enough to see off Wednesday.
The return fixture saw Wednesday ahead by one going into stoppage time. However, Jack Clarke combined with Patrick Roberts in the 93rd minute to send Sunderland to Wembley once again.
Unsurprisingly, the Sunderland takeover hit London for the second time in as many years with a sold-out Wembley hoping to see Sunderland overcome Wycombe Wanderers. An early goal from youth product Elliot Embleton gave the Mackems an advantage until once again Stewart sealed the win and promotion back to the Championship for the first time since 2018.
Return of the Mack-ems
As a reward for promotion, Neil signed a new contract in the summer while Sunderland’s recruitment focused largely on bringing in young players with huge potential.
Sunderland first turned Jack Clarke’s stay on Wearside permanent. The focus again looked at young players from Premier League clubs with Dan Ballard, Aji Alese and Amad Diallo.
Louis-Dreyfus then perhaps used his contacts in French football to secure talented wonderkids Abdoullah Ba and Edouard Michut. Jewison Bennette concluded the window and would feature in the World Cup only four months later.
Only five games in, Sunderland were shocked when Alex Neil attended an interview for the vacant Stoke job despite a 1-0 victory at Stoke a week prior.
it was all but confirmed when Neil did not take charge against his former side Norwich. Only two days later, former Middlesborough captain Tony Mowbray replaced him.
Premier League Bound?
So far this season, Sunderland have been the surprise package in the Championship even with their striker woes. However, Mowbray’s attractive style combined with a confident, young team leaves SAFC in fifth position with 16 games remaining. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus has so far allowed fans to dream after a near decade nightmare.