Ahead of Sunday, there is one obvious moment of reference being brought up across the build-up to the game. Not so much by Sunderland fans, for obvious reasons, but as much as people wish there wasn’t, there is basic similarity. I’m of course referring to Sunderland and Charlton’s meeting in the 1998 play-off final, just as they will on Sunday, 21 years later and a division below.
I was a few months shy of my second birthday in May 1998. I wasn’t at the game, and even if I was, I’d probably still not remember it. I’ve watched back the highlights and the penalty shootout for the first time ever this week, and it’s made me see all the more clearly why it was such a huge moment. For the neutral, it embodies everything the play offs are about; the drama, glorious highs and crippling lows. From a Sunderland perspective, the way promotion slipped in and out of our reach over the course of an afternoon and eventually losing by the finest of margins, it is clear how this became the platform the next few years of success were built on. It’s easy to see why it has received so much attention in the build up to Sunday’s game.
Obviously, it doesn’t need spelling out how little relevance that fixture has on Sunday. It is something relived by journalists of national outlets to bring significance to a game dwarfed by its Championship equivalent. A year ago, they were doing the same with England’s penalty record ahead of the World Cup, as if events which happened before squad members were born reflect their own capabilities.
In fairness, I don’t even think the games we’ve played against Charlton this season really count for anything, let alone ones between us over twenty years ago. I can’t say I’ve watched Charlton apart from when we’ve played them, but Sunderland have changed so much over the course of the season. Almost sixty games have passed since our first meeting back in August. It would be a massive shock if the likes of Donald Love, Glenn Loovens and Bali Mumba who all started the opening day fixture, were even on the bench come Sunday.
Four others involved that in that game have since left. Even our most recent meeting in January came at the beginning of the transfer window. Lewis Morgan, Grant Leadbitter, Will Grigg and Jimmy Dunne were nothing more than targets. Their impact on the team comes untested against Sunday’s opponents.
Most importantly, since the last meeting in January, each club has lost arguably their best player. Josh Maja and Charlton’s Karlan Grant managed fourteen and fifteen goals each before their respective departures. Each side has undoubtedly had to adapt to cope with these losses, and it will be each squad’s current form which will come up against each other on Sunday.
This is before even getting to the nature of the play offs. Sunderland and Charlton’s league meetings were hardly at pivotal points in the season. August and January matches lack the edge of the fixtures of April, when the end is in sight. The play offs are a step up even from here. Each individual decision contributes to the overall success or failure of an entire campaign. There are no more games to bail out a mistake made on Sunday. Coping with this pressure will be key in deciding who will join Luton and Barnsley in the Championship next season.
In this respect, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for Sunderland fans. All season long, many of our games have followed a similar pattern; failing to capitalise on dominant spells, squandering chances and allowing the opposition to come back into the game. At least it was, until the semi-finals. We held took the lead and firm in the home game, even at a man down. In the midst of the pressure of the second leg and the noise coming from the Portsmouth camp, we dug in and gave a professional performance to see us through. Though not the best from a neutral perspective, it sent out the message that this group can stand up and be counted when it matters most. And that is something that we can take into this final.