Sunderland brought the curtain down on a truly forgetful 2023-24 campaign with their 22nd defeat of the season as they were soundly beaten by a Sheffield Wednesday team who secured their Championship status in the process. 

Liam Palmer opened the scoring for Danny Rohl's side before Josh Windass doubled the lead before half-time as Sunderland gave little resistance throughout the afternoon in Mike Dodds' final game in interim charge and an afternoon which could also have seen Jack Clarke's final appearance in a Sunderland shirt.

Wednesday finish the season just three points behind Sunderland as attentions turn to what is set to be a huge summer at the Stadium of Light to repair the damage done by this season. 


Charlie Hurley tribute

The sad news of Charlie Hurley’s passing last week left a sizable hole in the shape of Sunderland’s history books – the club's greatest player of the century.

Throughout the entire 90-minutes at Vicarage Road, supporters sang and championed the name of one of their favourite sons with Watford, too, paying tribute. And those tributes continued to flock in at the Stadium of Light before, during and after Sunderland’s final home game of the season.

Ahead of kick-off, club historian Rob Mason led proceedings with a touching anecdote on Hurley in front of the ‘Charlie Hurley Gates’ outside the stadium, with members of Hurley’s family, friends, former team-mates and current club officials in attendance. Hurley was pictured front and back of the club’s match day programme before supporters then showed their tributes with a banner unfurled in the Roker End that read: ‘Rest In Peace: The King’ as the two teams emerged from the tunnel to the Z-Cars theme of days old at Roker Park.

Charlie Hurley: The greatest centre-half the world has ever seen.


Jack Clarke’s farewell?

Alongside the emotional tributes being paid to a club legend in Hurley, one of few other reasons for supporters to feel enthused by attending the game was to see Clarke in action for what feels as though it will be the final time in a Sunderland shirt.

Dodds did his best to try and assure fans Clarke’s exit this summer is not a forgone conclusion but the reality may well dictate otherwise – even more so based on this evidence from another uninspiring Sunderland performance to see out the season.

Clarke, over the course of the last two years has been exactly what Sunderland endeavour to do, a shining example as to how this approach and this model can work as a player brought in at a young age with a high potential value has developed and taken his game to another level. The 23-year-old picked up both of the club's player of the year awards this season, with very little in the way of competition, having followed his 20-goal contribution season last year up with 19 this season.

And the winger was the only real positive light on another dreadful afternoon at the Stadium of Light where, on more than one occasion, he must have been left scratching his head as to how his work didn’t result in a team-mate finding the back of the net. Both Patrick Roberts and Jobe Bellingham wasted good opportunities after clever build-up play on the left from Clarke to create space – Roberts in particular with another glaring miss after his nightmare at Vicarage Road a week ago.

And when Clarke tried to do things himself and add to that 15-goal tally for the campaign, he saw resistance from the woodwork as a superb curling effort out of nothing had the beating of James Beadle in the first half only to cannon back and away off the upright.

Clarke was withdrawn with five minutes remaining, as those who remained in the ground serenaded his name, for they know it could be the final time they see him in a Sunderland shirt. If that is to be the case, Sunderland will pocket a tidy windfall, financially, and will begrudgingly accommodate the sale of a player who appears to have outgrown the pace of the club’s own progression.

On a day where supporters paid tribute to a hero from yesteryear in the clubs history, there was also a tribute to a modern-day fan-favourite in Clarke.


Patterson’s streak comes to an end

As far as the game itself was concerned, Dodds threw up something of a surprise, again, with his team selection which saw goalkeeper Anthony Patterson replaced by Nathan Bishop, with Roberts replacing Chris Rigg.

Patterson has been a linchpin in Sunderland’s ascendancy in recent years having been handed the gloves in the final months of the club’s League One promotion winning campaign. Patterson, a product of the club’s academy and another example of the club’s vision paying off, had started 107 consecutive league games for Sunderland ahead of the visit of Sheffield Wednesday, as well as five play-off appearances in both League One and the Championship.

But despite being ranked fourth in the division this season when it comes to clean sheets with 13, including five in his last eight appearances, the 23-year-old was left out for Bishop, who was making just his second appearance of the season following the League Cup tie against Crewe Alexandra in August.

Patterson’s inclusion on the bench suggests Dodds’ decision was preferential rather than injury related, with Patterson one of those players who has been linked with a move to the Premier League over the course of the last year.

Bishop was beaten twice in the first half, Palmer’s opener going through him at the near post before being left relatively exposed by his defence for Windass’ strike soon after. Bishop still has two-years remaining on his deal at the Stadium of Light but has been considered a back-up option throughout the season, something which may change depending on Patterson's situation. 


The Callum Styles midfield experiment

It was a conversation that Callum Styles felt needed to happen ahead of Sunderland’s trip to Watford, but not one that came to fruition - the opportunity to fill Dan Neil’s midfield boots.

Dodds admitted it was something he’d considered, but opted against it at Vicarage Road. Why was why it came as a surprise to see the Hungarian international given an opportunity in the heart of midfield against the Owls, especially given the reluctance to do so in weeks gone by.

As the game got underway, it was clear he’d play alongside Ekwah in the ‘number six’ role, but not a move that should warrant a repeat.

It was Styles’ lazy ball forward that handed the Owls the best chance of the opening stages, gifting the ball to the visitors, Ugbo crossing from the right and the ball narrowly evaded the onrushing Anthony Musaba at the far post. A real let off.

Styles regained some composure after that early let off with a handful of decent touches here and there, but not enough to severely impact the game.

That being said, it was his left foot that created Sunderland’s best chance of the first-half. His free-kick from the left-hand channel perfectly placed onto the head of  Luke O’Nien, the ball nestling into the back of the net, only for the linesman’s flag to intervene.

Wednesday clinical with their response as they raced to a 2-0 lead before the half-time interval.

Sunderland were abject. Styles was replaced at half-time and that was the end of that experiment. 


Sheffield Wednesday survive with little Sunderland resistance

Jeopardy may not have been a word associated with the game from a Sunderland perspective, that has long since gone out of the window following a desperate 2024 which has seen them take just 19 points from a possible 63 available to them this calendar year. By contrast, Sheffield Wednesday – a side battling relegation throughout the entirety of the campaign, moved onto 34 from 63 with this comfortable win at the Stadium of Light.

Wednesday knew a point would be good enough to ensure their safety would not be dictated by results elsewhere and they never looked in danger of missing out on securing a result to satisfy their needs.

Dodds had hinted in the build-up he expected Rohl’s side to be slightly conservative in the opening exchanges but it was actually the Owls who were on the front foot and looking the more likely as Sunderland’s pedestrian nature continued into another game.

Marvin Johnson went untracked from a short corner as his effort cannoned around the penalty area before Styles was robbed of possession all too easily to allow an opening for Anthony Musaba, who might have done better before Rohl’s team did open the scoring through Palmer who went unnoticed in behind both Styles and Pierre Ekwah to pick up a sumptuous slide-rule ball from Barry Bannan to beat Bishop at his near post.

Wednesday found space down Sunderland’s left again to double their lead when Pol Valentin was able to pick out Windass all too easily who, again, was relatively unmarked from 10-yards to extend the lead and effectively kill the game as a contest.

Despite creating a couple of big opportunities late in the first half, Sunderland, for the most part, look laboured and sluggish once more and resembled a team who have struggled to even crawl over the finish line this season.

The way results elsewhere transpired meant Wednesday were indebted to their result at the Stadium of Light to preserve their Championship status, but with next to no resistance from Sunderland it always felt they would get the job done here.


What comes next and the Danny Rohl watch 

With the book, mercifully, now closed on Sunderland’s 2023-24 campaign, all eyes will quickly shift onto the club’s hierarchy for some leadership and guidance as to what comes next at the Stadium of Light.

The club’s obsession with progression has led to a significant regression this season as they end the season just six points above the relegation zone and 17 away from their minimum target of the top six and the play-off places with a final league position of 16th in the Championship table.

It’s a club which has felt as though it has been on autopilot since February after the dismissal of Michael Beale, a head coach brought in at the halfway point of the season to advance the club but a move which could not have backfired much more than it has. The decision to instil Dodds as interim head coach for the final 13 games of the season is another which will be brought into significant scrutiny, despite it ticking a variety of boxes at the time.

Dodds has won just two of his 13 games in charge since taking over in February. Sunderland have scored  just seven goals in those 13 games which has included five blanks at the Stadium of Light – the outlier of one of those games coming in an embarrassing 5-1 defeat to Blackburn Rovers, a side who survived relegation by the skin of their teeth on the final day of the season.

Sunderland’s season hasn’t just hit a tailspin in the second half of the campaign rather it has been completely self-destructed.

It begs the question as to what comes next?

One option was on show in the opposition dugout in German head coach Rohl. The 35-year-old has masterminded a remarkable great escape at Hillsborough this season after taking over a ruinous situation from Xisco Munoz. Since Rohl’s appointment, Wednesday have outperformed Sunderland routinely when it comes to the most important stat: points on the board.

We Are Sunderland: Danny Rohl guided Sheffield Wednesday to safety with victory over SunderlandDanny Rohl guided Sheffield Wednesday to safety with victory over Sunderland (Image: Ian Horrocks)

‘Danny, Danny Rohl’ was the chant from the sizable Sheffield Wednesday following who will pray the German remains at S6 next season. Rohl was highlighted as one of the best coaches club captain Bannan has worked with recently and it’s easy to see why given his exploits in this, his first role in the Championship.

Watching Rohl on the touchline and he looked the part, too, constantly cajoling and demanding of his players, kicking and heading every ball right until the last. In the bowels of the Stadium of Light post-match, Rohl greeted every member of the press with a handshake, distinguishing between Rohl in the dugout and Rohl in front of the camera.

His team were well organised and structured in a back five with wing-backs as we have seen Sunderland utilise under Dodds recently. Rohl’s ability to unite the Sheffield Wednesday fanbase is something else that will appeal. You only have to observe the contrast between the away end at the Stadium of Light and the rest of the ground to highlight the two different ends of the spectrum and just what a head coach who can bring a club together can do with the two clubs, on this evidence, heading in completely different directions.

There are other candidates; Will Still, Paul Heckingbottom and Rene Maric have all been linked with the vacancy. Whoever Sunderland’s hierarchy want to bring in, it seems imperative they do it swiftly to quickly draw a line under what has been a turbulent, depressing and forgetful season.