After nine months and 60 games, it all comes down to this.
For those nights at Doncaster, being drenched in Accrington, climbing through gardens at Luton and dancing in the streets of Portsmouth, this is Sunderland’s shot to provide the Hollywood ending to a season Netflix always wanted.
All that stands in the way is Charlton Athletic under the Wembley arch.
The lines have already been written about Clive Mendonca, Michael Gray and the “greatest play-off game of all time” - and now the class of 2019 have their chance to do what that beloved team never could.
A win at Wembley would be Sunderland’s first since 1973, avenging Alan Curbishley and his father-of-the-bride suit. Let’s give it one more big push and get back to the Championship.
Jack Ross Says...
The players know what’s at stake, but they have done since the first game of the season.
The difference is, now we only have one game to get the right result to do what we set out to do right at the start of the season.
I must admit I’m not nervous, not just because we’ve been there before, I think as a manager if you feel if you prepare as thoroughly as you can and you do as much with your team as you can, you have to just feel a certain amount of comfort.
There’s not a huge amount I can do after that. I’ve been fascinated in leadership, and have been for a number of years, and you can go way back to some of the Roman generals - Alexander the Great and people like that - and how they focused on tactics and preparation too, but they all made sacrifices to the Gods before it.
That’s why over the course of the Portsmouth games I was quite calm. We had worked hard on being prepared for the game and it’s for the same for this Sunday.
But when the game starts, there’s an element of your preparation playing a part and there’s elements that you can’t control.
Sunderland could welcome back Aiden McGeady on Sunday after Jack Ross stated that the Irishman “has a chance” of making the matchday squad. McGeady has missed the past four games after fracturing a bone in his foot during the win at Accrington Stanley. Should he be fit for the final it would represent a huge boost for the Wearsiders.
After such an impressive defensive display against Portsmouth in the second leg of the play-offs, it will be interesting to see if Ross sticks with the midfield trio of Lee Cattermole, Max Power and Grant Leadbitter. McGeady’s imminent return could tempt the manager into a more attacking line-up with George Honeyman moving into a more advanced role.
There are also calls to make over whether to start Lewis Morgan and Chris Maguire. The latter was instrumental in Sunderland’s matches against Pompey and a fired up Scotsman could prove to be the thorn in the side that Charlton would not relish.
Charlie Wyke is expected to lead the line again, with Will Grigg to be used as an impact sub later in the game.
View from the Opposition
The sight of Doncaster’s Thomas Rowe smashing the decisive shootout penalty wide sparked wild scenes at The Valley. There were not many Charlton supporters that predicted their side to be in a play-off final when they fielded a cobbled together squad for the opening day defeat at the Stadium of Light.
However, manager Lee Bowyer has worked wonders with this young team and there is huge excitement in south London for The Addicks’ first appearance at Wembley since that famous play-off in 1998. Despite losing the second leg against Doncaster, Charlton have been in fantastic form losing just once since early-February.
They ended the regulation season winning eight of their final ten games with Lyle Taylor and Joe Aribo in sparkling form. They will provide another stern test for Jack Ross’ men and Bowyer believes his own record at Wembley could play into their hands.
It’s going to be nice to have some positive stuff happening. And going to Wembley is definitely positive, because in my long career I went there once, played there once.
There are a lot of kids in there [his Charlton squad] – 18, 19 and 20. They’ve got a long career in front of them and they are already going to play at Wembley. We all have to enjoy it, and I’m sure we will.
My last experience was very good. I’ve got a 100 per cent record there!
Last Time We Met
Charlton were present at the scene of this current Sunderland team’s revival. The game against the Addicks on the opening day was the first step on lifting the gloomy clouds from the Stadium of Light. After years of crushing disappointment and abject misery, Lynden Gooch’s diving header had supporters believing once again.
The corresponding fixture at The Valley in early-January saw a dominant first-half display from The Lads rewarded with a Luke O’Nien goal. However, like with much of Sunderland’s League One outings this campaign, the visitors were pegged back by a Reece James own goal. The sides had to settle for a draw but it means Sunderland have only lost one game against the top six.
Charlton and Sunderland have met in a play-off final before but by this point you’ve probably heard enough about it. Anyway, we lost.