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Sunderland v Crystal Palace

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On This Day (2004): Sunderland consigned to another year in the Championship after penalty drama

Sorry to dredge up bad old memories, but... just put your bloody foot through it, man!

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

To my mind, there would be no better way than to see in this new, positive era under Kyril Louis-Dreyfus than to put to bed our horrible record in the Play-Offs, one that stems back to the 1980s when we ended up relegated having lost over two legs against Gillingham.

We then made it past Newcastle in 1990, only to suffer heartbreak in the final against Swindon - one that ended well for us when we were promoted due to financial irregularities on the part of our opponents.

And I don’t need to tell anyone about 1998, or 2019 - on both occasions, we were seen off by Charlton Athletic at Wembley Stadium in heartbreaking, morale-sapping losses.

I’ve mentioned this before, but that whole period under Mick McCarthy in the Championship in the mid-2000s is probably the least heralded promotion era in my lifetime. We don’t really seem to talk much about it, despite the fact we almost got into an FA Cup final, won some important games, and then eventually went up as Champions.

One game nobody will ever forget, however, is the Play-Off semi-final second leg against Crystal Palace at the Stadium of Light in 2004 - for all the wrong reasons.

Having lost the first leg 3-2 away at Selhurst Park, we knew that we had to give it absolutely everything we possibly could in the return fixture at the Stadium of Light.

34,536 fans rocked up for the occasion, knowing that another raucous, hostile night at the Stadium of Light could help push the Lads over the line - with a Wembley final as the prize.

The early stages of the game were tense and edgy, but knowing they had to win and make their home advantage count, Sunderland eventually opened the scoring three minutes before half time.

After Jason McAteer whipped a deep cross into the penalty area, it landed on the chest of Kevin Kyle, who collected the ball calmly before volleying it beyond Nico Vaesen to give Sunderland the lead, putting us level at 3-3 on aggregate in front of the visiting Palace supporters housed in the south stand.

Sending the Stadium of Light into delirium, Kyle and his teammates dove into the South East corner to celebrate with the Sunderland fans.

With momentum behind us, we quickly made it two before the ref had the chance to blow the half-time whistle - another McAteer cross into a dangerous area this time found the head of Marcus Stewart, who made no mistake at the near post, putting Sunderland into the lead.

Palace knew they had to respond in the second half to save their season - and they did, in the most heartbreaking fashion.

Sunderland v Crystal Palace Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Despite the fact Julian Gray was dismissed for a second yellow card in the 86th minute, Sunderland did a Sunderland and conceded - though, many still to this day maintain we were robbed. The referee missed a clear foul by Neil Shipperley on Mart Poom, and with his path blocked, Darren Powell got on the end of a Shaun Derry corner to get that important last-minute goal which sent the tie into extra-time.

Neither side were able to get the goal they needed during the additional half an hour, so it went to penalties - a situation Sunderland fans were all too familiar with when it comes to Play-Offs.

John Oster was the first player to step up in red and white - and his shot hit the inside of the post and out, meaning we were up against it from the off.

Andy Johnson followed that up by despatching his spot-kick, despite Mart Poom getting his gloves to it, and that meant the pressure was all on us.

Tommy Smith, Phil Babb, Carl Robinson and Gary Breen all scored theirs, but Palace kept on scoring and with the opportunity to win it, Shaun Derry saw his kick saved by Mart Poom to give Sunderland a lifeline.

Going into sudden death, the nerves began to show, and McAteer - who had come up with the two assists on the night and had delivered when needed - saw his tame effort saved comfortably by Vaesen, handing the advantage back to Palace.

They didn’t make it count, though, as Wayne Routledge’s spot-kick was again saved by Mart Poom, who was in top form.

It was then the turn of Jeff Whitley, who knew that he just had to score to heap all the pressure back on the visitors.

What followed can only be described as the most controversial penalty ever taken at the Stadium of Light - he stuttered with his run-up before making it far too easy Vaesen, who had time to adjust himself and turn the ball away.

Mick McCarthy at pitchside was apoplectic with rage - as were the Sunderland supporters across the world, forced to watch on as another fantastic opportunity slipped through our fingers.

Michael Hughes was next to take a penalty, and it proved to be the decisive one - he scored, Palace progressed, and Sunderland were consigned to another season in the second tier.

The scars from that night are still apparent to this day - and many fans will never forgive Whitley for the nonchalant manner in which he stepped up to take the spot-kick.

Speaking after the game, Whitley expressed his own disappointment.

“For me missing a penalty in the play-offs was a bitter pill to swallow,” he said.

“The way the season ended was a huge disappointment to everyone and it hit me hard - it was a horrible way to go out and the lads got pretty down about it, but we’ll bounce back.

“We all wanted to be in the Premier League - and still do - and we gave it our best shot, but in the end it was not quite good enough.”

We bounced back, going up as Champions in the following season, but nobody can deny that it was a disappointing blow - given the game was in our hands, the referee missed a blatant foul on our goalkeeper in the run-up to the late Palace goal, and that we tossed it off in the penalty shootout.

Let’s hope lessons have been learned!

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