When Sunderland’s players walk down the tunnel and into the cavernous surroundings of Wembley on Saturday afternoon, it is safe to say that everyone in red and white will be feeling the magnitude of the occasion.
After a long, hard season, each player will be winding themselves up for one final push, and many of the club’s recent social media posts, centred around the simple-but-effective catchphrase of ‘Til The End’, feel entirely fitting.
For the likes of Jack Clarke, Danny Batth and Anthony Patterson it will be their first taste of a game that could genuinely alter the club’s trajectory, as well as that of their own careers. After all, they have no association with the failed campaigns of recent years, and hopefully that will be reflected in their performance.
Indeed, Alex Neil’s recent refrain has tapped into the mantra of ‘You can’t alter the past, but you can shape the future’, and our squad seems to have embraced it. These lads are ninety minutes away from being the first Sunderland team to gain promotion via this path. That should be quite the incentive to finish the job.
In the three years since our last playoff final much has changed at Sunderland, particularly regarding the makeup of the squad, and Neil’s current team (excluding the exiled and hopefully soon-to-be-released Will Grigg) bears virtually no resemblance to the group that fell short in such sickening fashion in 2019.
Two players from that era, however, remain at the club, and are still key members of Neil’s team.
For Luke O’Nien, who joined Sunderland in the summer of 2018, and Lynden Gooch, who has been at Sunderland for a decade, this final represents their third tilt at promotion via the playoffs, and it is a safe bet that they will be absolutely hellbent on ensuring that there is no sour ending this time.
When the team was overhauled and reshaped last summer, one of the stated aims was that we would be bringing in players who were not tainted by previous failures, and could provide an injection of youthful vigour and excitement. Out went the likes of Power, Maguire, and Wyke and in came a crop of fresh faces, many of whom have made a good impression.
As the season has unfolded the likes of Alex Pritchard and Corry Evans have often embodied a new way of thinking, embracing the challenge of mounting a promotion challenge and impressing with their attitude and leadership qualities.
For the club’s stalwarts, however, the encounter against Wycombe is another chance to close a chapter that has lasted for four years, and there is little doubt that they will be driven on by the pain of the 2019 and 2021 campaigns.
O’Nien and Gooch are two of the most polarising members of the squad, and the critical refrains are all too familiar: O’Nien does nothing but smile, he’s ‘not a footballer’; Gooch runs down blind alleys, lacks footballing intelligence, and simply isn’t up to the standard we require.
These criticisms aren’t entirely accurate, and despite the fact that they will never be universally loved by our fans, they have solidified themselves in the thinking of four different managers since 2018 when they might have been moved on in favour of someone else.
What Gooch and O’Nien have always brought, however, is a positive attitude and a willingness to do whatever is needed for the team. O’Nien’s performance in the semi-final first leg, during which he shadowed Barry Bannan relentlessly, was a recent example. It was ugly and simplistic at times, but it worked very well.
This ‘team first’ philosophy has also been embodied by Gooch’s willingness to fill whichever position is required of him, even in areas of the pitch that he is not necessarily comfortable in.
Are Gooch and O’Nien the greatest footballers we have ever had? No, but they are workhorses who will empty the tank and give everything they have, and that is a vital asset at any level of football.
Every Sunderland player will feel a sense of euphoria and relief if we win on Saturday. For Gooch and O’Nien, however, it might be even more acute, and very well-deserved.
Long-term, their futures might be unclear, but for now, it is all about sealing a long-awaited return to the Championship.