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Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg

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Sunderland’s date with destiny: Saturday could be our time!

Wembley should no longer be a place to fear for Mackems; instead, look forward with optimism and hope, as this is no ‘typical Sunderland’, argues Finlay Anderson.

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For the fourth time in eight years, I and many other Sunderland fans across the globe are set to embark on another Wembley experience.

For some, this could be a first, but for a large proportion, this is yet another one of those days steeped in fear, excitement, and hesitancy. No matter whether it was the old Wembley or new Wembley, since 1973 the national stadium has been a place that provokes absolute dread for us Mackems.

The nightmare of 26 May 2019, that late, heart-breaking Patrick Bauer goal, still lingers in the memory of Sunderland fans, myself included.

Charlton Athletic v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-off Final Photo by Leila Coker/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For all it was three long years ago - and so much of life has changed so dramatically since - that humiliating Sunday afternoon only seems like yesterday. The scenes of Sunderland fans in Trafalgar Square on the humid Saturday evening, the walk along Wembley Way (which always seems longer than it actually is), and ultimately, the long, hard walk back down the steps from the top tier at 5pm.

And it’s going to be quite a similar routine at the weekend for me and many of the 46,000-plus Mackems descending upon the capital.

But - and there’s always a but following this club - this time feels different.

This time is different.

Much has been reflected over the last couple of days about the backdrop to the 2019 final: after a long and tiring season, its impact on the campaign as a whole, and the night before, simply took it out of both the players and fans respectively.

Yet, this year feels quite the opposite.

Sunderland Fans in Trafalgar Square Photo by Harriet Lander/Copa/Getty Images

It was rather interesting listening to the words of Max Power on the Roker Rapport podcast this week, explaining how the mentality of the 2019 crop of players and staff was very much of being content with their play-off position, come their final two matches of the season against Fleetwood and Southend, where their destiny was already sealed.

And again, it’s simply just not the case for the group of 2021-22.

The way Alex Neil has brought the club back to life since his arrival in February is just simply remarkable, and from a position where promotion looked like a lost cause, it’s certainly a massive possibility now.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

His no-nonsense brand of football, which goes hand-in-hand with his manner of speech, has dragged Sunderland up from the ashes and the prospect of another season in the third tier, to the very cusp of history.

This campaign is going to be one etched into the history books, for one of two reasons: either a two-week period where the club was plunged into total chaos, or the team that broke their League One curse.

In the semi-final second leg against Sheffield Wednesday, Neil orchestrated a night that will live long in the memory of Mackems, and created memories that will last a lifetime (and, depending on the result on Saturday, maybe even longer).

Sunderland are nearly there.

To see this once magnificent club rise back to the Championship again would give many fans a sense of pride once again.

Yes, there may still be ownership problems in the background, but this latest chapter in Sunderland’s quite archaic lifetime may be the most uplifting of recent history.

For too long, this once living-giant of English football has been moved off the footballing map: for a club of this magnitude, yet another season in the third tier would be absolutely devastating, and rather disastrous.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Semi Final - Second Leg - Hillsborough Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

Sunderland’s time to stamp their own status back upon the football pyramid is now: now is the time to place the Black Cats back as a force to be reckoned with once again.

As 3pm comes around on Saturday afternoon, a football-dependent city and a large proportion of Wembley filled in clutters of red-and-white will hold its collective breath.

Alex Neil and his group of players are on the brink of pulling this historic club back closer to where it belongs: 90 minutes, perhaps plus extra time, perhaps plus penalties, separates them from history.

It’s been a season like no other: highs, lows, excitement, humiliation, nostalgia, you name it, Sunderland’s had it over these past ten months.

Yet, for us fans, there’s been one emotion and feeling lacking over these last ten, long months, and the past four years: a longing for promotion.

Wembley should no longer be a place to fear for Mackems; instead, look forward with optimism and hope, as this is no ‘typical Sunderland’.

Promotion, and the chance of a trip back to the reality of the Championship, are within touching distance.

Sunderland are nearly there. Our club are nearly there.

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