After Monday’s draw at Peterborough our fate is no longer in our own hands. Even if we win our three remaining games we still can’t overtake Barnsley if they do the same.
Thus, the so-called show down against Portsmouth has become slightly irrelevant if Barnsley fail to drop points in their two remaining games at home to Blackpool and away to Bristol Rovers. So as much as we hate to admit it the play-offs are a definite possibility - you best clear your diaries just in case.
I started writing this as a daft insurance policy that it would ward off the ghastly third promotion spot settler. That if I wrote about it, it would deem the actuality of it happening redundant - or some such daft superstition that us fans are reduced to when logic goes out of the window.
The fact is that our record in the play-offs is awful - we’ve been involved in the play-offs four times, reached the final twice, and have never been promoted (or stayed up) through them.
Our first involvement in the play-offs was in 1987 when we finished 20th in the second division on the back of the disastrous McMenemy era. Ordinarily, 20th position would have automatically relegated us; but in the early days of the play-offs, the team who would previously have been the third relegated team were briefly given a stay of execution and allowed to make up the quartet of teams with the third, fourth and fifth placed teams of the then third division. We played Gillingham who had finished in fifth place in the Third division.
The first leg took place at Priestfield and saw us lose 3-2 to a Tony Cascarino hattrick, with Mark Proctor replying with two for us. We won the return leg 4-3, but Gillingham progressed via the away-goals rule. That saw us drop to the third tier for the first time in our history.
Our second involvement with the play-offs was at the top end of the second division in 1990. Dennis Smith’s side made a late season charge up the league to finish in sixth place, with our dear old friends from up the road, finishing in third place, some six points better off than us. Goal difference separated three teams on 74 points. Swindon finished fourth with a goal difference of +20, Blackburn fifth with +15 and ours of a meagre +5 saw us sneak into the final play-off place. Setting up an enticing meeting with the mags.
The first leg was held at Roker and was notable, according to the Chronicle, for “Toon keeper John’s Burridge’s late penalty save from Sunderland left-back Paul Hardyman who was immediately red-carded for hoofing the prostrate Budgie in the head.”
Get in there Hardyman!
So onto St James’s and the now famous night where Gates opened the scoring in the 13th minute at the Gallowgate end and Marco Gabbiadini finished the game off with five minutes to go in front of an ecstatic Leazes end packed full of mackems.
Hoards of home fans invaded the pitch with the forlorn hope of getting the game abandoned. But the referee was having none of it, and brought the players back out to play out the few remaining minutes in front of the celebrating Sunderland fans.
Our Wembley trip was a damp squib. We didn’t show up as a team and Swindon sent us packing to a goal defeat. Financial irregularities saw us go up, much to Newcastle’s chagrin; so I suppose we have been successful in the play-offs once - albeit via the back door.
Our next appearance in the play-offs was 1998.
The three teams relegated from the Premier League traded places in the top three of the then newly-dubbed first division. One week Sunderland were top, then Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest. It was like a game of musical chairs, but by the time the music stopped, it was Sunderland who finished in third place when all the games had been played.
Our semi-final opponents were Sheffield United. The first leg was played at Bramall Lane and we narrowly lost 2-1. The return affair at the Stadium of Light has often said to have had the best atmosphere the stadium has seen (though personally I think the noise made after SuperKev equalised against the mags in the first derby there tops that). The lads made no mistake easing past the blades 2-0 to set up a final with unfancied Charlton.
Here's another popular choice from previous times the Lads have fired up the city... #SAFC v @SUFC_tweets - '98 play-off semi-final— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) April 11, 2019
A deafening noise throughout!
The final is well-documented and was as topsy-turvy as the season we had just endured. Wearside-born Clive Mendonca opened the scoring for Charlton. Niall Quinn equalised just after half time and then SuperKev put us 2-1 up in the 58th minute. Mendonca equalised for Charlton in the 71st minute and Quinn restored our lead two minutes’ later. Five minutes from the end of normal time, Rufus equalised to take the game into extra time. Nicky Summerbee scored our fourth mid-way through the first period of extra time, only for Mendonca to complete his hattrick four minutes later, looping a shot over Lionel Perez.
The penalty shoot-out was as dramatic, with the first 13 penalties being all scored. And then up stepped Michael Gray, whose kick Sasha Illic (the Charlton keeper) saved. More Sunderland heartache in the playoffs.
Our most recent appearance was a damp squib of an affair that many fans forget we were involved. In 2004 we finished the season in third place again and were against a Crystal Palace side managed by Ian Dowie. We lost the first leg, 3-2 at Selhurst Park. In the second leg, we were 2-0 up by half time, but Palace snatched a late goal on 90 minutes to send the game into extra time. With the away-goals rule having been done away with by then, the game went to penalties. Inevitably we succumbed 4-5 on spot kicks. Palace went on to get promoted after beating West Ham 1-0 in the final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
For us to avoid another brush with the lottery of the play-offs, we have to hope Barnsley slip up and that we can take maximum points from our three remaining games.
If that doesn’t happen, for us to play in next season’s Championship, we need to get two monkeys off our back. To win at Wembley and to succeed in the play-offs.