Finally, thanks to Keano who has changed the club around dramatically in only six wonderful months, we can now forget the disastrous beginning to our season under that novice manager Niall Quinn. Even re-reading that sentence makes me tingle with excitement; but it is true that we are now a club who are top of the current form table and starting to show the other promotion candidates what we are made of. The Keane factor and confidence has increased the clubs popularity and prospects ten fold as we look to enter the automatic promotion spots sooner or later and times are looking good going into the crucial final run in.
Having said that we cannot get too far ahead of ourselves – after all this is Sunderland we are talking about, and with success we normally come across disappointment. Or was that the old club and, now, under Keane’s new ‘Sundireland’ regime, can we expect constant success or battling performances in the play-offs?
After scrutinising the Championship table (daily, hourly, and minutely) it struck me just how many of the teams up there have links to SAFC and ultimately could come back to haunt us if indeed we do just miss out on the automatic spot. It wouldn’t be a typical play off battle without a bit of controversy and we are all familiar with the famous: “And making his first start in over eight games, not having hit the target in over sixteen decades, Daniel Dichio will line up against his former team mates this afternoon. None of the Preston fans or even players are bothered about him playing as his goal threat is similar to a one legged goat who is also blind…..but the cross comes in and – who is it….YES! Dichio with a diving overhead bicycle kick, scoring to put the Lillywhites into the lead.” Ok, so I exaggerated, but it is something that happens to Sunderland ridiculously often – a former player comes back from the grave, sometimes literally, and scores either the winner or an important goal to get them back into the game. This jinx cannot be ignored, as nearly every team apart from Derby have some kind of link that could prevent us from reaching the promised land of the Premiership.
There are two scenarios that haunt my waking hours and, knowing Sunderland’s past luck in vital games, there is a chance that either of these situations could happen come the play-off final fixture.
Sunderland play Wolves and amidst all the media speculation, again, Keane meets McCarthy to fight it out of the Championship and the game is as tight as Sunderland’s defence in 2007. In the dying moments Sunderland concede a corner – nothing new there then – and up step Craddock and Breen into the penalty area, sniffing for a header to finish the game. As Breen loops in a last gasp header the Sunderland fans are left heartbroken again as they face the exit doors. But due to the crowd restrictions and police control we are told to wait in the stadium for safety reasons. Having to watch Mick McCarthy hold the Championship trophy aloft over his wide grinning Cheshire cat smile just rubs salt into the already gaping holes.
This however does not scare me as much as the next horrible scenario – Sunderland against West Brom in the play off final and enter the return of Super Kevin Phillips. It was a devastating blow to see him join the Baggies rather than step onto the ‘Royvolution’, and his decision proves to be a good one as he breaks his former employer’s hearts by grabbing the winner at Cardiff/Wembley.
There would be no pain like seeing one of the greatest strikers we have ever had finishing off our promotion hopes, as he runs off to the bouncing Baggie fans rather than run to where he used to every week not so long ago. This would be a moment that no Sunderland fan would forget.
That is the danger of the play-offs and meeting links from the past to come back and damage us, so that is why the next three games against Birmingham, Derby and W.B.A are so vital in order to miss out on the lottery of the play-offs. If we manage to sneak into the top two positions and avoid the further games and nervousness we could also avoid scenarios like the ones I have just described.
A.K.A Gary Johnson