Going into Easter, Sunderland were looking assured in third position with games in hand on those above us. We had only to win our games and we were looking good to finish the division as champions. Well, with at least an automatic promotion place in the bag.
Easter Monday’s draw at second-place Peterborough saw us chalk up a 12-game unbeaten run. With only two other games being drawn. This 30-point haul, had seen us climb the League One table from seventh to a healthy third, with a large gap between us and fourth position.
There are many parallels between this season and 1997-98, which ultimately resulted in the infamous 4-4 draw with Charlton in the play-off final. With the Addicks winning the penalty shoot out after 13 kicks had been scored. Michael Gray’s weak shot was easily smothered by Charlton keeper, Sasha Illic.
As in 1997-98, three teams were playing musical chairs with the top three positions. Then it was Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough and ourselves. As I wrote in my review of the season at the time, when the music stopped, we were in third spot...
... and there were no more games to be had.
This comparison might have held some water at Easter, when the top three were all holding their own. But since then, not only have the wheels come off our bus, the doors and the windows fell in too. And to extend a tortured analogy even further, the driver looked like he was on the sauce too.
Our collapse since Easter looks like Judas Iscariot might have kissed Lee Johnson in the Garden of Gethsemane, pointing out to a league version of Pontius Pilate that he was the one to face League One destruction. Not that I’m suggesting that Lee Johnson is a Jesus figure. But you know what they say about messiahs in this part of the world if they achieve a modicum of footballing success.
Anyway, to get back to the point. In 97-98, we were far more convincing going up to the end of the season. Indeed, our weakness then was our poor start to the season, which meant us playing catch up for the rest of the term, especially as Forest and Boro were so relentless.
This season our start, though unremarkable, was pretty good - winning four out of our first six games. Drawing games has been our downfall this season. Despite our recent run of four losses in six games, we still have lost the fewest games in the division.
They say form is crucial going into the play-offs.
In 97-98, We were red hot, finishing the season with three wins out of four. In our last appearance in the play-off lottery, we finished with a whimper, losing our final two games and only winning one of our final seven matches. That year we finished in fifth place.
This year it looks like we’ll finish in fourth.
The final day sees us play already-relegated Northampton, and Blackpool (in third place) are similarly playing doomed Bristol Rovers. If we win and Blackpool don’t we finish third and could possibly play Charlton in a hattrick of play-off final appearances.
Would that make the fixture the most played play-off final match up? And if we were to play Charlton, would it be a hat-trick of defeats, or is the Wembley monkey off our back a sign of good things to come?