They came in their numbers. Almost 6,000 of them across the Pennines. A cavalcade of red and white.
A few will have held nagging doubts; surely something would go wrong and provide an unwelcome plot twist in this final-day drama.
The vast majority travelled in blind hope, determined to keep faith ’til the end; cheer their team to the rafters and whatever will be, will be.
But, long before the final whistle went at Deepdale, the doubts had fallen away. And in the closing stages, the party was in full swing in the Bill Shankly Stand housing the massed ranks from Wearside.
Sunderland had done it. Sixth place, and with it a crack at the play-offs with a two-legged semi-final against Luton Town standing between them and a trip to Wembley.
It was the most remarkable day. Going into the final game Sunderland were seventh in the table, two points outside the play-offs.
They had to win at Preston and hope that either Middlesbrough beat fifth-placed Coventry City or that sixth-placed Millwall dropped points at home to Blackburn Rovers. Coventry and Millwall had matters in their own hands – the Sky Blues needed only a point to secure their place, while Millwall needed to win.
Ninth-placed Blackburn and eighth-placed West Bromwich Albion, who travelled to Swansea City, were level on points with Sunderland and also had a chance of making the play-offs, but the Black Cats’ superior goal difference meant they held the advantage. And yet for 45 minutes it looked as though Sunderland might miss out.
Ex-Black Cat Duncan Watmore fired Millwall into an early lead, West Brom were winning, and Coventry went in front midway through the half at the Riverside Stadium. A ray of hope arrived when Blackburn equalised at The Den, and then Swansea levelled against the Baggies.
But none of that would mean anything unless Sunderland could beat Preston and, while they had weathered an early storm from the home side and had gone on to dominate, they could not find a way through with Joe Gelhardt coming closest when he was denied by Freddie Woodman in a one-on-one. It was goalless at half-time in Lancahire, and the news elsewhere was looking grim.
Millwall led 3-1 and looked nailed on. If Sunderland were to make it, they needed to find a goal from somewhere and hope that Boro, who had equalised on the stroke of half-time against Coventry, could complete the turnaround. Blackburn pulled a goal back early in the second half, while Pierre Ekwah was denied by Woodman at Deepdale, but a few minutes later Amad finally delivered the goal Sunderland craved when he lashed a stunning strike into the top left-hand corner.
West Brom were back in front, but that did not matter; Sunderland needed Blackburn or Boro to score again. Substitute Alex Pritchard, who had come on at half-time to replace the injured Dennis Cirkin, scored a fine second goal for Sunderland just after the hour, and a couple of minutes later there was a roar from the away end as news filtered through of an equaliser for Blackburn.
Jack Clarke made it 3-0 as Preston folded and the Black Cats began to run riot, while Swansea equalised against West Brom. Sunderland were upholding their part of the bargain and now it was just a case of hoping that Blackburn – or Boro – could uphold theirs.
Suddenly, five minutes from the end, an almighty noise erupted from the Sunderland fans as word spread of another Blackburn goal – they were 4-3 ahead, meaning Millwall would have to score twice. That was the cue for the party to get started at Deepdale.
Swansea’s injury-time winner against West Brom was an irrelevance. Sunderland finished sixth, ahead of seventh-placed Blackburn on goal difference and a point clear of eighth-placed Millwall, and a play-off place was theirs.
Afterwards, Tony Mowbray labelled Sunderland’s achievement ‘miraculous’. Given the context – this was Sunderland’s first season back in the Championship and Mowbray’s task when he took over in August was to ensure the club stayed clear of the relegation battle, the Black Cats have spent more than half the season without a centre-forward and star striker Ross Stewart has played little over a quarter of the campaign, skipper Corry Evans has sat out the second half of the season with a serious knee injury, while injuries have also left them with no fit central defenders for the run-in – it was impossible to disagree.
A year ago, Sunderland had finished fifth in League One and were in the play-offs, bidding to return to the Championship at the fourth attempt. Today they are sixth in the Championship, in the play-offs once more, and potentially three games from a return to the Premier League.
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