I’m actually quite pleased that we’ve drawn Portsmouth in the semi-final. It guarantees that one of us will once again grace the turf at Wembley. And if Sunderland should fail to reach the Championship this year, I hope that Portsmouth make the step up. Not out of any sort of sympathy for their recent plight; I’m just sick of playing them.
The appetite for the game amongst supporters seems low, but that is to be expected. Many see anything other than automatic promotion as a massive failure, and even winning the play-offs would only serve to cover up our lowest ever league finish. The play-offs are easy to be negative about as well. It’s easier to resign yourself to heartbreak when for three teams out of four that’s how it will end. Obviously, given the manner in which we ended the season, it’s easier to be sceptical about our chances than others. Even more so when you consider that we are yet to beat Portsmouth across our many meetings this season. When you add this to the fact that no League One team has finished fifth and won the play offs since Barnsley in 2006, it looks as though history is not on our side. Considering the fact that no team wearing red and white striped shirts with black shorts has ever won any play-offs in twenty-nine attempts, we might as well just sack it all off.
Of course, I’m not being serious. My point is if you go looking for negativity, it’s easy to find. Ultimately, if you keep your expectations low, you can never be disappointed and it’s something that has served Sunderland well in recent seasons. It’s harder to be optimistic. Whilst there are valid reasons to be concerned heading into the game given the way our season tailed off, there is no reason why we cannot progress to Wembley for the second time this season.
The play-offs represent a fresh start of sorts. There isn’t a prolonged interval for the players to forget about what has taken them to this point be it a final flourish or a stuttering end. Each team goes into the games knowing that, regardless of their recent form, they are as little as two wins and a draw from promotion. Within our squad, we possess players capable of stepping up when it counts; we’ve all seen how Chris Maguire seems to grow with the responsibilities that come in the big games. Glenn Loovens, Jon McLaughlin, Grant Leadbitter, Jack Baldwin and Charlie Wyke have play-off experience across the EFL, though only McLaughlin tasted promotion. We’ve got the likes of Bryan Oviedo, Aiden McGeady, Lee Cattermole and Adam Matthews, who’ve competed in European competitions amongst others with a wealth of international experience. Whatever happens on the pitch, we know that it won’t be because they buckle under the significance of the game.
I’m not particularly bothered about our record against them either. These play-off matches represent the most significant meetings between the two sides and come with an added pressure not even Wembley carried. Even though they’ve beaten us twice in three meetings this season, there is very little between the two teams and only three points separated us in the final table. Though the score-line in the fixture at Fratton Park might tell a different story, the match turned on Loovens’ red card whilst at Wembley, it took the lottery of a penalties to settle the game. The meeting at the Stadium of Light, the best indicator of where both teams are at, was a well fought draw we were unlucky not to win. Generally speaking, we have a good record against our fellow play-off hopefuls and this is something which can only bode well for the games ahead.
Writing this in the aftermath of Liverpool’s 4-0 victory over Barcelona, it is important to stress how crucial a role the atmosphere will play on Saturday. I’d say to any fan, if they are able to and can afford it, to get down and play their part. A dip in attendance would be understandable, given that the match has been scheduled with a week’s notice and it’s another £20 each. But as we’ve seen this season, there are teams with squads more suited to this level, with more experience and consistency than us. What no other team can match, is the effect a full, bouncing Stadium of Light can have on a football match. When fully utilised, it can make our players double in stature and break the opposition. Whatever reservations you may have about our recent form, whether you’re Ross in or Ross out, we potentially are four and a half hours of football away from finishing the journey we all set out on in August. Let’s make it count.