Sunderland players never doubted that they had what it takes to seal a Championship play-off place, according to Jack Clarke. After winning promotion from League One 12 months ago, the Black Cats have exceeded all expectations this term as they stepped up a level and immediately set about launching a play-off challenge.
They kept the heat on their rivals in the run-in but went into the final day needing to win at Preston and also hope that either Middlesbrough beat Coventry City or that Millwall dropped points at home to Blackburn Rovers if they were to finish in the top six. But their wishes came true as winger Clarke scored in a 3-0 win at Deepdale, while Blackburn’s 4-3 win at Millwall meant the Wearsiders leapfrogged the Lions to finish sixth, above Rovers on goal difference, to earn a play-off spot and set up a two-legged semi-final against Luton Town.
“Us as a group we always thought we could get in there [the top six] and deserved to be in there,” said Clarke. “To get in there and cement our spot in the play-offs is a big achievement for us as a team, a big achievement as a club, especially with the amount of injuries and setbacks we’ve had this year.
“Now we are going to go off and take a bit of time to prepare and recover for the game [the first leg against Luton at the Stadium of Light] on Saturday. We have had two good results against them this season, we’ve drawn twice, and we’ll build on that.
“Obviously we want to go out there and set our stall, win the games and get ourselves to Wembley, but we’re not thinking that far ahead. We will go into Saturday fully prepped and see what the game brings.”
Clarke was part of the group that helped Sunderland get out of League One via the play-offs last season, joining on loan from Spurs in January last year, before making a permanent move to the North East in the summer. The situation was very different this year compared to last, with Sunderland under immense pressure to get out of League One in each of their four seasons in the third tier, while this term they have had no such burden to carry with supporters recognising that the club first needed to re-establish itself in the Championship – a task it has more than fulfilled.
Clarke said: “I think the club as itself needed to get out of League One, whereas this year we’ve just taken each game in our stride. We as a group knew how good we could be and what we set out for ourselves, but I don’t think anyone expected us to finish in the top six.
“It’s just a great feeling for us as a club to show how far we’ve actually come and as a group I think we thoroughly deserve to be in there.”
At times on Monday it looked like Sunderland might miss out on a top six place, as they struggled to break Preston down in the first half while Coventry never looked likely to lose at Boro and Millwall went in at half-time 3-1 ahead against Blackburn. But soon after Amad had put Sunderland ahead and Alex Pritchard doubled their lead, the sands began to shift as Blackburn levelled their game at The Den and then – after Clarke had added a third at Preston – Rovers scored their winner five minutes from time.
Clarke said: “We just focused on the game to be honest. We knew we had a job here that we had to get done before anything else.
“We didn’t really focus on other games and other results going on. We just knew we had to get our job done then if things fell right for us, which they did, we could celebrate afterwards.
“As we came in at half-time we heard a few bits and bobs like Millwall are winning 3-1, Coventry were 1-1, so weren’t doing us any favours. At that point we weren’t even winning our own game so we didn’t focus on that too much to be honest.
“We knew if we got our job done it was still out of our hands but thankfully Blackburn did us a favour in the end.”
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