A superstition as old as time itself, crossing paths with a black cat is sure to bring bad luck. That was the case for Sheffield Wednesday, who saw their dreams of promotion dashed by a 93rd minute Patrick Roberts strike, as Sunderland secured the 1-1 draw they needed at Hillsborough to reach the League One play-off final.
But the Black Cats have had their own unshakable curse bestowed upon them over their history, with each of their previous six play-off campaigns ending in brutal despair on the pitch. Two of those failures have come in the past three seasons in League One, as Lincoln got the better of them in the semis last term while Charlton Athletic scored a gut-wrenching 94th minute winner at Wembley in 2019.
Patrick Bauer’s goal was featured in the finale of Netflix’s ‘Sunderland Til I Die’ and one woman, as she exited the national stadium that day, summed up the emotion of every Mackem.
“Why can it never be us?”
In 1987, they lost on away goals in the inaugural season of the play-offs after a two-legged 6-6 draw with Gillingham. In 1990, they lost a Wembley final to Swindon, but were eventually promoted after the Robins were found guilty of financial irregularities, and the Wearsiders went up in their place. That’s the only time Lady Luck has fallen their way over the past 35 years.
In 1998, they lost arguably the greatest play-off final ever on penalties after a 4-4 draw with Charlton, and six years later Crystal Palace heaped more misery on them from the spot. Add the two recent failures and that means, when the Black Cats walk out at Wembley this month, they will be attempting to end the misery in their seventh play-off campaign.
That’s the luckiest number of the lot and this time, under Alex Neil, it could well be time to rewrite history. He’s only been in the job since February, replacing Lee Johnson, but has led the north-east side on an unbeaten run that has now stretched to 15 matches.
That run saw them seal a top six place and has now got them a place at Wembley, as the likes of Bailey Wright, Ross Stewart and Alex Pritchard have become integral to their success.
Is that the goal that sends Sunderland to Wembley?! 🔥
But they are going to need to shake off another play-off hoodoo if they are to be playing Championship football next season. Given they are facing Wycombe in the final, they’ll be wearing their famous red and white stripes with black shorts, but that might not be a good thing.
Until Brentford won their play-off final against Swansea City last year, teams that traditionally wear red and white stripes and black shorts, had featured in 32 play-off campaigns and 16 finals without achieving promotion. Now that record reads played 33, won one - but has Thomas Frank managed to lift that curse for the others?
Sheffield United, Exeter City, Lincoln and of course Sunderland are all too accustomed to play-off heartbreak, but the north-east side have already ended their Wembley misery - as they won the EFL Trophy last year against Tranmere.
Unfortunately for their fans, that one was played behind closed doors, so no Sunderland fan has actually seen Wembley glory in person. They’ll invade Trafalgar Square as they have so many times in recent years, and their half of the 90,000 seater stadium will be completely sold-out - but there will always be an air of trepidation when the Mackems venture to the capital.
They are favourites to win the final. In truth, they should win the final on paper. But this is Sunderland. This is the play-offs. This is Wembley. And those ingredients have combined in a cauldron to make a fatal potion all too frequently in the past.