Matt Smith says...
I’d be lying if I said I was approaching the start of yet another play-off campaign in a Zen(den?)-like state of calm. The scars from previous campaigns run deep and on each occasion, the pain can only be described, to steal from Morrissey, as being ‘enough to make a shy bald Buddhist reflect and plan a mass murder’.
Yet I’m nowhere near as apprehensive, yet, as I probably should be.
Partly it’s down to my view, whether misguided or not, that we’re a match for any of our rivals in a mini-competition over, hopefully, 3 games. I’m also not unduly worried by our performances in the back end of the regular season.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team’s confidence in progressing through the play-offs partly explains the end-of-season slump. There were some decent performances despite the results and, overall, it felt more like a recharge than a choke.
Yet the main cause for my relative nervelessness (with an expiry date of Wed 19th) is the oft-overlooked footnote to previous play-off pain.
It’s been alluded to in the recent, topical and ever-excellent ‘On This Day’ articles: namely that the intensity of the pain is more than matched by the swiftness of our recovery.
1990 brought about the quickest, and most unexpected, reversal of fortunes but even after Gillingham, Palace and Charlton (Part I) we bounced back spectacularly to top the league in the following season. No one’s going to argue that, without the rudest of interruptions by Covid, we’d have done the same last year after Charlton (Part II).
But with so much of life being put on pause this last year, I can’t help thinking the coming play-offs will be a belated confirmation of the revivalist trend.
Reece Davies says...
To be honest, before every game this season I’ve gone through the thought process of ‘I hope we turn up’. That’s what is causing me nerves - the uncertainty.
There is no doubt that this squad have underachieved this season. There have been too many variables to list, that have impacted us this season and I just hope that since the regular season finished, we’ve found some fire in the belly.
I have confidence in any starting eleven that Johnson fields, but we cannot carry even one passenger and that includes the lads coming off the bench. We have quality in whoever starts, but these lads have to raise the bar. For the most part they have been at Sunderland since we fell into this league, and they need to step up - no excuses.
We have plenty in attack to cause teams problems, we need it to click.
I fear for predictability, hoping for McGeady and Wyke to click but I understand that Johnson needs to play to his strengths.
With the away tie, we have fans to negotiate also and that is why we have to play on the front foot and silence them early. Going forward, playing through the thirds and keep that backline facing their own goal. Silencing the likes of Scully and making them fulfill their defensive duties will only add to their frailties. I am confident that we will come out of the game with a win, but I want a performance to show me that we mean business.
There will be many that read this thinking “it’s the result that matters”, and I would agree, but we’ve finished in the league with 1 win in 9 (against 10 men) and there wasn’t a half-decent performance amongst them. We cannot show up to these games with that mentality, and Johnson needs to bring something special too.
Many of these players were the “nearly men” with Jack Ross - they and the club cannot afford to have that mantra ringing in the ears on Wednesday evening. Not to mention, I cannot stand having another season in this league.
Come on boys - we need a performance and result to greet 10,000 fans at the SoL, and listen to them scream the place down for 90 minutes to see you off to Wembley!
Phil West says...
Ahead of our second play-off campaign in three seasons, the nerves are certainly jangling, if not entirely shredded, and the excitement is building ahead of three games that could potentially place our club on a new trajectory.
It probably isn’t the healthy kind of excitement but it is undeniably intoxicating, and on Wednesday night, when the Lads run out at Sincil Bank, I’m sure my heart rate will be beating rapidly, just like everyone else.
Describing the emotional rollercoaster of this sport that we love, Martin Tyler once said that “only football can make you feel like this”, and he certainly had a point.
After a season like no other, during which we’ve seen countless comings and goings through the doors of the SOL, the final verdict of success or failure all hinges on whether we can lay the ghosts of 1998, 2004, and 2019 to rest, and finally escape a league via a victory in this tricky three-game shootout.
We ended the forty-seven-year Wembley hoodoo this season, and what better way to cap it off than finally burying the playoff curse into the bargain?
Can we do it? Of course we can. For all that has gone before, and the fact we ended the league campaign in very poor form, the fact that this is now knockout football should change the dynamic. There should be a controlled, measured urgency to our play, and for the players who have been here before, the desire to make sure that they don’t fail again should be a very powerful force as well.
Come Saturday night we’ll know whether we are Wembley-bound and one game away from the Championship, or destined for another grind of a season in L1.
It’s all or nothing, and I can’t wait!
Gary Engel says...
Well, the play-offs bring back plenty of memories of absolutely outstanding matches including Newcastle away, Sheffield United home and Charlton at Wembley (volume I - 1998, the seventh-best game played at the twin towers).
Those are games that still bring chills.
Then, of course there is the other side, the agony and defeats, they’re enough to give adult fans nightmares or bring them to tears - Gillingham, Crystal Palace and Charlton once again.
But then, the same could be said of our Wembley appearances since ‘73 and that turned for the better this year. It’s difficult to tell what Sunderland team is going to turn up and frankly, we can only take it one game at a time. Let’s not look at who we could have next because there are too many unknowns in games such as these.
As we’ve seen from past experiences, a side can be in a winning position only to have that snatched away, you can’t take anything for granted in the play-offs. We have some experienced heads in the side to remind the rest of our side of that.
But know-how and old heads are no guarantee to see us over the line.
The nerves are on the rise, and even a win on Wednesday wouldn’t be enough to quell those. They’ll only grow, and we’ll need to see arguably our best performances of the season if we’re to win that final Championship spot.