Throughout the years, playoff drama and Sunderland have gone hand in hand. Who can forget one of the greatest finals in Wembley history in 1998? However, today we look back at the semifinal second leg stage where Sunderland have been a fixture many times since the playoffs were introduced.
All of the Black Cats semifinals have been steeped in drama, passion and controversy that have kept fans on the edge of their seats.
Playoff Drama and Sunderland Go Hand in Hand
Sunderland 4-3 Gillingham 1987
Back in 1987, the playoffs were contested between teams that finished third-bottom and those that finished in third, fourth and fifth in the league below. Sunderland, who finished 20th (third bottom) in Division Two, would play the team who finished 5th in Division Three. Should Sunderland lose they would be relegated with the team winning the final taking their place.
The Black Cats had finished the league season with a 3-2 home defeat to Barnsley consigning them to the playoffs despite leading 2-0 and missing a penalty to make it 3-0.
The first leg at Gillingham ended 3-2 to the home side; however, with the Black Cats at Roker Park for the second leg and having two away goals, confidence, despite not being high was optimistic.
Roker Park was packed but nervous as defeat would see the Black Cats play third-division football for the first time.
It took Gillingham just three minutes to score, however, two Eric Gates goals tied the game on aggregate. Sunderland again missed a penalty before the visitors scored via a penalty of their own which despite being saved was scored from the rebound.
With time running out defender Gary Bennett was put up front and scored to take the game into extra time. Gillingham scored again early in extra time and despite another Sunderland goal to make it 4-3, it wasn’t enough and the worst-case scenario had happened.
Newcastle United 0-2 Sunderland 1990
35 years ago produced a night that Sunderland fans will never forget. With the game at Roker Park ending 0-0, Newcastle believed the tie was won and simply had to turn up for the second leg. However, Sunderland’s away form had been strong throughout the season and they were quietly confident of securing the win.
Eric Gates quietened the home crowd with a close-range effort in the first half and when Marco Gabbiadini scored late in the second half, Sunderland were on their way to Wembley.
However, the drama did not end with the goal. Newcastle fans invaded the pitch in the hope of getting the game postponed and replayed. Following a delay to clear the pitch and the referee ensuring Sunderland players that the game would be finished no matter how long it took, the final moments took place.
Sunderland 2-0 Sheffield United 1998
Having been relegated on the final day of the previous season, Sunderland began life at the Stadium of Light in England’s second tier. An indifferent start to the season in their new home was followed by a run of form that saw the Black Cats finish on 90 points but still only finish third.
Sheffield United were their opponents in the playoff semifinals with the Blades winning the first leg 2-1 at Bramall Lane setting up an enthralling game at Sunderland.
More than 40,000 were in attendance and created an atmosphere that fans still talk about to this day. The Black Cats needed two goals and they went on the attack from kick-off. On 21 minutes a deflected shot from Allan Johnston found its way into the goal to give the Black Cats the lead and when Kevin Phillips scored his 34th goal of the season just before halftime the home side appeared to be cruising to victory.
However, in the second half, United came out fighting and Sunderland had goalkeeper Lionel Perez to thank when the Frenchman made a superb double save. The first from a volley from inside the box and then the follow-up shot. The 3-2 scoreline on aggregate saw Sunderland head to Wembley to face Charlton Athletic. The rest is history.
Sunderland 2-1 Crystal Palace 2004
Crystal Palace held the advantage going into the second leg winning 3-2 at Selhurst Park. Once again Sunderland needed a two-goal win to progress to the final. At halftime, it was all going to plan. Kevin Kyle and Marcus Stewart scored two quick goals just before the break.
With the minutes ticking by, Palace had a player sent off and another playoff final looked likely for the Black Cats’ red and white army. A late corner for the Eagles produced a moment of heartbreak and controversy. Sunderland goalkeeper Mart Poom was fouled from the resulting corner which the referee missed and Palace scored to take the game into extra time. Neither side could find a way through so the game went to a penalty shoot-out.
The shoot-out went to sudden death but the first two penalties were missed. Sunderland needed to score to put huge pressure on the next Palace taker. However, Jeff Whitley produced one of the most controversial penalty kicks in Sunderland’s history. His stuttered run-up and attempted dummy before striking the ball didn’t fool the Palace keeper and his weak effort was easily saved.
While Sunderland boss Mick McCarthy was raging on the touchline at what he’d just witnessed, Palace scored to book themselves a place at Wembley.
Portsmouth 0-0 Sunderland 2019
Following a 1-0 victory in the first leg, Sunderland did enough to secure their place in the final in an ill-tempered game at Fratton Park. The game itself is arguably the least drama-filled of all of Sunderland’s playoff appearances; however, the main talking point came in the second half when Luke O’Nien ended up in the Portsmouth crowd following a challenge from a Pompey defender.
Footage showed that O’Nien was struck by a fan but didn’t press charges. He said: ‘It was just a bit of handbags and nothing to think about too much,’ O’Nien said. ‘It’s happened and it’s something silly. I’ve seen my little cousin hit harder than that. ‘He didn’t hurt me and he got arrested at the end I think.’
Sunderland 2-1 Lincoln City 2021
Due to Covid restrictions, just 10,000 were allowed to attend the game. A 2-0 loss at Lincoln saw Sunderland attack from the first minute, dominating the opening 45 minutes. Racing into a two-goal lead, The Black Cats were looking comfortable. Two halftime changes by Lincoln saw the game sway back in their favour and they scored on 56 minutes to put them back in front on aggregate. City could have put the game beyond the home side but missed a penalty seven minutes later.
Sunderland hit the post late on as they laid siege on the Lincoln goal; however, the visitors held on to consign their more illustrious opponents to a fourth heart-breaking season in League One.
Sheffield Wednesday 1-1 Sunderland 2022
Four seasons in League One had made Sunderland and their loyal but long-suffering fans desperate for promotion. Almost 45,000 roared on the Black Cats in the first leg as they won 1-0 ahead of the second leg at Hillsborough.
It took until the 74th minute for the first goal. The Owls scored it and it appeared that it would be them that would find another but Sunderland fought gallantly and with the game heading to extra time, the visitors struck to once again head to the home of football. Patrick Roberts’s finish on 93 minutes sparking wild celebration amongst the travelling fans.
The final at Wembley finally saw Sunderland win a playoff final and also win at Wembley in front of fans since 1973.
Luton Town v Sunderland 2023?
Sunderland take a slender 2-1 lead into Tuesday’s second leg at Kenilworth Road. 46,000 were in attendance for the first game but at Luton’s small ground only around 10,000 will be there; however, the atmosphere is sure to be just as lively and if previous playoff games are to go by, expect plenty of drama.
Sunderland have a long injury list at present and there are now doubts over the availability of Alex Pritchard and Patrick Roberts. Head coach Tony Mowbray has admitted that it is “touch and go” as to whether they will be declared fit enough to play. Defender Aji Alese is back in training following his own injury problems and could make the substitute bench.
Luton Town boss Rob Edwards is expecting those with slight injuries from the first game to be passed fit with only forward Cauley Woodrow ruled out with a knee injury.
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