A PLAY-OFF battle was not what Sunderland wanted at the start of the season, it wasn’t even what they wanted a few weeks ago. That is exactly what the Black Cats must now negotiate if they are to return to the Championship at the first time of asking.

For that to happen, Jack Ross will have to improve on a significant imbalance when it comes down to Sunderland’s history in the end of season Football League shoot-outs. Play-offs have not been successful for the men from Wearside.

There have been highs, like beating rivals Newcastle United over two legs in a semi-final, but there have tended to be more disappointments, such as the dramatic penalties defeat to Charlton in 1998 when Michael Gray missed the decisive spot-kick he didn’t even want to take.

Even the one-time Sunderland ended up being promoted after a play-off tussle, it was courtesy of Swindon – who had beaten them at Wembley in 1990 – being punished after being found guilty of making illegal payments.

As Sunderland shape up towards Saturday night’s first leg against Portsmouth at the Stadium of Light, here’s a look at their previous play-off campaigns.

1986-87 – Sunderland lost in the semi-final

A topsy-turvy encounter over two legs with Gillingham ended with Sunderland dropping to the third tier of English football for the first time. Sunderland lost on away goals after a thrilling 6-6 aggregate scoreline.

The promotion-relegation play-offs ended in what became known as the club’s blackest day after Lawrie McMenemy’s team lost to the Gills, of the Third Division.

Sunderland lost 3-2 in the first leg. Mark Proctor penalty’s opened things up away from home but Tony Cascarino’s hat-trick put Gillingham in the driving seat before Proctor raised hope with a second.

But Sunderland’s away goals were cancelled out in front of 25,470 fans at Roker Park when Howard Pritchard and Cascarino found the net either side of an Eric Gates double. Gary Bennett forced the game to extra-time with an 88th minute header.

There was more incident in the final half hour. Cascarino added his second, meaning Sunderland had to score two more. Even though Keith Bertschin headed one of them they could not find another and relegation was confirmed.

1989-90 – Sunderland lost in the final (but still went up)

If there was a way to go up, this wasn’t it. Swindon celebrated promotion in the final at Wembley only to learn later it would be blocked because of illegal payments. Sunderland went up instead, having had to go through the mill in the semi-final.

This was the infamous year when Sunderland faced Newcastle, with the first leg at Roker Park. That initial meeting was already heading for a goalless draw when Paul Hardyman saw his stoppage-time penalty saved. The defender was then sent off for kicking out at goalkeeper John Burridge.

That was merely the start of the controversy. The second leg was played in a hostile atmosphere which spilled over on to the pitch when there were mass pitch invasions because Sunderland led 2-0 through Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates’ goals when the Magpies were expected to win at St James’ Park.

Sunderland faced Swindon in the final. Alan McLoughlin’s shot, which took a wicked deflection off Bennett and left Tony Norman stranded, proved the difference.

This was when Wearside sadness turned into celebrations when Sunderland crept back into the top-flight courtesy of a disciplinary committee ruled against Swindon. Newcastle, who had finished third, put their case forward for replacing Swindon and were rejected. Sunderland, who had finished sixth, were promoted, although they were relegated a year later.

1997-98 – Sunderland lost in the final on penalties

After beating Sheffield United in the semi-final having finished third and Charlton had overcome Ipswich having finished fourth, the two met in a mouthwatering final at Wembley – when Clive Mendonca stole the show.

The much-travelled Mendonca opened the scoring in the first half, only for Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips to twice put Sunderland in the driving seat. Mendonca levelled, only for Quinn to score again with the first attack after the restart.

Sunderland were on the verge of the Premier League when Richard Rufus equalised with five minutes left to earn extra-time. There was a feeling then the chance had gone but Nicky Summerbee put Sunderland ahead again.

Charlton refused to be beaten and Mendonca claimed his hat-trick to force the game to penalties, when all designated spot-kicks takers scored. When it went to sudden-death John Robinson and Quinn converted, but after Shaun Newton found the net Gray’s was saved by Sasa Illic and after all the hard work it was another defeat for Sunderland.

2003-04 – Sunderland lost on penalties in semi-final

It was penalties heartache again for the Black Cats, this time under Mick McCarthy and before Wembley.

Ten-man Crystal Palace went through to the play-off final in Cardiff after a dramatic comeback and a penalties win after the aggregate score ended 4-4. Michael Hughes scored the winning spot-kick after Jeff Whitley had missed from the spot.

Sunderland had levelled the tie at the Stadium of Light when Jason McAteer crossed for Kevin Kyle to fire home and then Marcus Stewart headed Sunderland in front. When Julian Gray was dismissed it seemed more likely that Sunderland would progress.

But Darren Powell headed in a dramatic injury-time leveller having already led from the first leg at Selhurst Park.

That Selhurst was where Palace recovered from a first half Stewart penalty, Neil Shipperley headed in Danny Granville’s cross.

Danny Butterfield’s deflected effort was cancelled out by Kyle’s close-range finish but Andy Johnson reclaimed the home side’s lead ahead of the second leg. The Eagles ended up beating West Ham at the Millennium Stadium too.