The play off final! Against Charlton! Oh the narrative, the piping hot narrative!
We remember that day in terms of heartbreak, the tears of Micky Gray and how Peter Reid’s side used the defeat as fuel to blitz the division the follow season. At the other end of Wembley though, the Addicks fans celebrated wildly and will be looking to do so again this Sunday.
Hopefully it will be revenge for Sunderland this time around, but it won’t be an easy task. Lee Bowyer has done a great job in very difficult circumstances at The Valley, guiding his team to a third place finish, and they have plenty of momentum going into the play offs.
How will they harness that momentum though? Should they have gone up automatically? And how do the Charlton fans feel about this game? To get an idea, we once again caught up with Louis Mendez of Charlton Live.
RR: Let’s get the obvious one out of the way nice and early. All the build up to this game is going to be referencing the 1998 play off final, and understandably so. What are your memories of that day?
LM: I was nine years old and was not prepared for the rollercoaster ride we went through that day! Wembley Way was a sea of red and white striped Sunderland shirts as we came out of the station and I remember being incredibly nervous before the game.
The match itself was ridiculous – I was in tears at one point and wanting to go home! But the sheer euphoria when Sasa Ilic saved Michael Gray’s penalty will live with me forever.
RR: Back to the present day, you ended the season brilliantly and were certainly the form team heading into the play-offs with only two defeats in 2019. What clicked so well to produce such good form? Did Lee Bowyer change anything in particular?
LM: Even with then top-scorer Karlan Grant being sold to Huddersfield in January, a couple of useful additions in the window along with players returning from injury saw the Addicks become more settled and they haven’t looked back since.
Ben Purrington came in at left-back to balance a back-four that has seen a resurgent Naby Sarr excel. Jonny Williams added another option in midfield, where Joe Aribo returned from injury and added more goals to his game.
Lyle Taylor needed a partner to replace Grant and Igor Vetokele stepped up to the plate – although has missed the last couple of games through injury.
RR: Bearing in mind how good your form was at the end of the season and how others stumbled, is a part of you not thinking “what if?” in regards to automatic promotion? Do you think keeping a hold of Karlan Grant could have made a difference, or is getting this far, given what’s going on behind the scenes, an achievement in itself?
LM: I genuinely think that Charlton would have hit the top two if Grant had stayed. A poor patch of form just after he left took a while to recover from. He and Taylor had formed such a dangerous partnership together that defences in League One were struggling to deal with them.
As you mention, there’s a lot of off-field instability at The Valley. This has resulted in owner Roland Duchatelet not giving Bowyer a single penny to spend on transfer fees. He’s worked miracles at the club – let’s hope they sort out his contract for next season as soon as possible.
RR: Lyle Taylor has been one of the division’s best players this season, so he’s certainly one to keep an eye on this Sunday. Aside from Taylor though, who else should Sunderland fans be looking out for as we head into the game?
LM: Joe Aribo will also be a constant thorn in Sunderland’s side. He glides forward with the ball as if it were glued to his foot and has added goals to his game recently. He’s destined for big things and has hit his best form at exactly the right time – just like the Addicks as a collective group.
Jonny Williams has also been threatening for the south Londoners – he looked useful when he came on in the second-leg against Doncaster.
RR: Sunderland fans meanwhile will be sweating on the fitness of Aiden McGeady, who didn’t feature at all in our semi final games against Portsmouth. With that in mind, who in the Sunderland side will you be keeping an eye on?
LM: McGeady is of course the stand-out man, but Luke O’Nien has been a handful at times this season and has developed a handy skill of scoring against the big sides.
RR: How do you see Bowyer approaching this game and what do you expect his starting line up to be?
LM: Bowyer will treat this just like any other match. He’ll instruct the Addicks to play their normal game. This will mean that they’ll look to use their quality going forward but remain organised at the back.
They wont be afraid to play on the front-foot and will hope to pin the Mackems back into their own half like they did in the second-period at The Valley this season.
My predicted starting line-up – 4-4-2 diamond: Phillips, Purrington, Sarr, Bauer, Dijksteel, Bielik, Cullen, Aribo, Williams, Taylor, Parker.
RR: Finally, how do you see the game going? Can we have a score prediction as well?
LM: It’s going to be tight. Charlton to edge it 1-0.