Reflection has been the key word to come out of Sunderland’s post-mortem of the 2023-24 season.

Interim head coach Mike Dodds has often referred to it over the course of the last fortnight when it comes to how he will consider his time in charge, across both spells, this season while also admitting it will be a significant ingredient across a number of levels at the Stadium of Light; from playing staff right the way up to boardroom level.

Captain Luke O’Nien is another who referenced the term when providing his assessment of where things have gone wrong on Wearside this season several hours after the dust had settled on their 2-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday to close out the campaign. Part of that delay was down to that very word ‘reflection,’ with O’Nien having his say on matters in the dressing room before the squad dispersed their separate ways for the summer break – some, perhaps, for good.


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When they return, there will likely be plenty of change at the Stadium of Light with a new head coach set to arrive and player exits and new recruits par for the course. But the ideology of this term ‘reflection’ being key poses a question in itself: what does it actually mean?

Dodds stressed the importance of players being able to take a break from the melting pot of football and simply enjoy being themselves: ‘Go and be insert name here, and not, insert name here the footballer.’ You can see the logic in that, after all, the scrutiny in place on footballers is heightened to the extreme, but how else can that reflection take place? Is it by relentlessly analysing individual games and performances, further meetings to establish accountability, a complete reset or merely looking at oneself in the mirror?

“All of the above,” says O’Nien. “We had an end of season meeting so we all know where we stand in terms of stats compared to our goals which will always be to get promoted; so we did a reflection where individually in each position we did a review compared to the people who got promoted at the top of the league so there’s clear facts of ‘we want to get promoted, this is where the top people in the league are and this is where you are.’ Then you can see the gap and from there you’ve got an action plan of where you need to go.

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland captain Luke O'Nien echoed the thoughts of Mike Dodds and the need for reflection on a dreadful end to the 2023-24 campaignSunderland captain Luke O'Nien echoed the thoughts of Mike Dodds and the need for reflection on a dreadful end to the 2023-24 campaign (Image: Ian Horrocks)

“The best thing about that is once you’ve got the facts in front of you, it’s easy to review it again in two or three months’ time where you either go forwards or backwards and that’s up to the club now, myself and everybody as players to make sure we move forwards because if you’re not moving forwards you’re moving backwards and that’s something you can’t have – it’s unacceptable at this club.

“We’ve got a base and now we’ve got the facts, numbers and figures that will show what we need to do in due time, and we’ve got a pre-season programme that’s going to be the catalyst for what we want to achieve.

“When a season is going for you there can actually be less to take away from it, so there’s more to take away this season than there was last season,” he adds.

“We’ve got all the facts now in front of us where we’ve been good and where our deficiencies are and it’s important we reflect on the season and not only that but put in a better plan. We spent a long time in League One and every season we didn’t get promoted there was a reflection and we came back to pre-season with better foundations and we didn’t make the same mistakes and now it’s important we go and do the exact same.

“A season like this will be the driving force for when we are successful and as long as you approach and reflect then put into place the right things to move forward, you can learn these lessons.”

We Are Sunderland: Sunderland were beaten 2-0 by Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the Championship season at the Stadium of LightSunderland were beaten 2-0 by Sheffield Wednesday on the final day of the Championship season at the Stadium of Light (Image: StatsBomb)

The meetings and analysis elements to that period of reflection then, seemingly, having already taken place amongst the players and staff which leaves the reset period. For O’Nien that will be spending time with his family and two children who accompanied him onto the field ahead of the game against Sheffield Wednesday and again afterwards as players shared their appreciation to those supporters who did remain in a sparse Stadium of Light – the majority having seen enough of a season which has declined at a troubling rate.

“I had my two kids and that was the thing that was most important to me, I had them in my arms. I got to walk out with them and that was one of the most special moments in my career,” he said. “I understand and appreciate the people who stayed but also the people who didn’t because they came to the game and we didn’t give them a reason to stay – would I be staying if my team lost 2-0? That is the question I ask.

“I appreciate the fanbase and the support and as a group we’ve got to give the fans more and a reason to stay. Ipswich gave their fans a reason to stay and I bet nobody has left yet and I’m envious of what they achieved and I think everyone in this room should be as well because they are the example of where all of us want to be and I’m sure if we get to that stage there’ll be a few more people staying.




“I have the same emotions and frustrations because you have goals and you want to achieve those and then you have the reflection at the end of the season where the table doesn’t lie. Equally you can’t always achieve your goals every single season. It’s more important how you turn up the next season. Do you turn up with your heads down or do you turn up with your head up and your chest pumped out and look to do better and achieve more?”

In that moment, O’Nien threw down the challenge to his team-mates ahead of next season and to get those reflection periods right after what has been a turbulent second half to the campaign for the club. Only bottom-of-the-table Rotherham United possessed a worse record than Sunderland in the second half of the season in 2024 and, had there still been another few weeks to run, Sunderland could very easily have been joining them back in League One next season.

That in itself should bring about some reflection: How did it get to this? How does it revert back to what it was 12-months ago?

While a time machine would be welcome for the club’s hierarchy to prevent them from making the key decisions that derailed the season, for Dodds it’s about looking ahead and using that now commonplace notion of reflection to ensure certain non-negotiables are established next year.

“Not finishing where we’ve finished [in the table]. That’s an absolute non-negotiable,” Dodds tells We Are Sunderland outright. “Our home form next year has to be absolutely miles better. For whatever reason this year I think the players have really struggled at home and I don’t know the reason for that. But our home performances, regardless of results, compared to our away performances have been significantly different.

“There’s some data stuff which we’re reflecting on at the moment which we’re going to present back to the players in terms of general stuff like how many chances are we creating per game? How many chances are the opposition creating per game? Those types of things are what the conversation are going to be about.

“We want to be a certain type of team and I feel this year we’ve seen too many fluctuations of a Sunderland team and I found that really difficult to wrestle that back, if I’m honest. I found it really, really difficult to get some momentum and wrestle that back. So I think they would be the general non-negotiables we won’t accept next year."

We Are Sunderland: Mike Dodds has called for the need to reflect on where it has gone wrong for Sunderland this seasonMike Dodds has called for the need to reflect on where it has gone wrong for Sunderland this season (Image: CameraSport)

On top of this period of reflection, it feels equally as important that Sunderland don't feel sorry for themselves. Having reaped the rewards for a hugely positive return to the Championship last year, they must now endure the turbulence they are experiencing.

“We are left under no illusions that this year hasn’t been acceptable," said Dodds. "And if we don’t reflect and if we don’t go away in the summer and have some kind of difficult, internal reflections and maybe some difficult conversations – whether it be over the next few days or throughout the course of pre-season and we don’t improve, that won’t be acceptable for next year. I think my overarching message is that the table doesn’t lie. That’s not lost on myself or the players.

"We will reflect, we have to reflect, because if we don’t improve for next year then we don’t deserve to be here because it’s a magnificent football club. As I’ve always said, it’s not always nice being sat in this position so publicly, and this isn’t about me at all, and I say it to the players so I’ve got to eat some humble pie with it but I reiterate that failure is the most important ingredient for success but it’s only important and it’s only a positive if you actually sit down and reflect and have some real honest truths and next season we’ve got to be better.”

Look up the word reflection in the dictionary and you will find: ‘serious thought or consideration.’ Representatives of Sunderland at each and every level will need to give this season some of that, but as Dodds also alluded to in the final week of the season, and O’Nien in his post-match dressing down, it will be about the action which subsequently follows for otherwise, they will be just words.