FootballFootball League

There are ominous signs for Sunderland ahead of attempt to banish the ghosts of 1998

May 23, 2019January 7th, 2022

SUNDERLAND last played Charlton in a play-off final in 1998, three days before my university finals. It had been hot and humid and when I got back from Wembley my room was stifling.

I flipped up the latch and, as I had a hundred times before, pushed the window pane. Except this time, because the room had just been painted, the window didn’t open and my hand went straight through the glass.

And that’s how I came to be wandering about college looking for first-aid with a blood-drench tea-towel wrapped around my wrist three hours after Mickey Gray had missed that penalty. Other Sunderland fans may talk about being scarred by that 4-4 draw; I have the literal proof on the index finger and wrist of my right hand.

Maybe knowledge of the record-breaking promotion season that followed has dulled the emotion but my memory of that game is that, midway through extra-time, I was struck by what a privilege it was to be at one of the greatest games Wembley had ever hosted, to be witnessing a game that would be talked about for years to come; epic memories, I’ve gradually concluded, are far more important than success – there have been promotion campaigns since that have left barely a mark.

And from the moment Niall Quinn gave his on-field address after the final whistle, I had little doubt Sunderland would be promoted the following year. As it turned out, Sunderland were a much stronger, better-balanced team when they went up than they would have been had they won that final.

It’s hard to imagine something similar this time around. There’s a reason the first leg of Sunderland’s play-off semi-final against Portsmouth drew only 26,000, the lowest league crowd of the season at the Stadium of Light, and it’s not just that fans were saving up in anticipation of a trip to Wembley (not that there was any great over-confidence, more a calculation: win and they had a weekend in London to pay for; lose and, well, it didn't matter if you weren’t there anyway).

Much has been made of how much better the mood has been at the Stadium of Light this season than in the recent past – and it is. There has been a palpable sense of people enjoying going to games once again.

But at the same time there has been a mounting sense of frustration at how the team seems to have stagnated since November, culminating in the run of one win in seven games to end the season just as they had automatic promotion in their grasp. League One was fun when it seemed sure it would only be for one season.

Questions, understandably, have been asked about recruitment. Sunderland’s best player this season, by some margin, has been Aiden McGeady, followed, probably, by Lee Cattermole. Cattermole has been at the club a decade; McGeady was signed in 2017. Both were recruited before the present owners took charge.

Perhaps that’s only reasonable – there was a lot more money available then. But both are in their 30s and that must raise concerns about the squad for the future, particularly given Cattermole was, with Bryan Oviedo, one of two players Sunderland were looking to offload last summer because they’re still on high wages.

That’s not to say there haven’t been good signings. Jon McLaughlin has been solid enough in goal, and was excellent in the play-off semi. Luke O’Nien, willing and versatile, was voted young player of the year. In a defence that has often been chaotic, Tom Flanagan has shown promise. Chris Maguire’s combination of aggression and flair has made him popular.

But the big doubt is what happened in January. Josh Maja had 18 months left on his contract and wanted to leave, but he’d scored 15 league goals. Sunderland reasoned that, to get a decent fee, it was best to let him go and so he was sold to Bordeaux for a reported £1.5m (possibly rising to double that with add-ons and bonuses).

At which they desperately needed a centre-forward and ended up shelling out more than £3m on Will Grigg, who has struggled. In retrospect, it may have been better to hold on to Maja and let him leave for a much lower fee at the end of the season.

Which means there is real pressure at Wembley. On the one hand, it’s the chance to win promotion and lay the ghosts of 1998. But if Sunderland lose for an eighth tome in a row at Wembley, the reaction is likely to be far less accepting than 21 years ago. Nobody wants another season in League One.