SUNDERLAND will play their 61st game of a truly remarkable season when they take on Charlton Athletic in the League One play-off final at Wembley on Sunday.

Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson looks back on the club’s journey over the last nine months, and highlights some of the key moments that have taken Jack Ross’ side to the brink of promotion


It feels like an eternity ago now, but the opening weekend of the season provided one of the most pivotal moments in the whole campaign. Sunderland needed to dispel the negativity that had built up in the face of back-to-back relegations, and Lynden Gooch’s stoppage-time winner against Sunday’s opponents, Charlton, marked the start of a new dawn.

Sunderland started the season strongly, recording impressive away wins at Gillingham and AFC Wimbledon, and avoided any last-minute panic at the end of the transfer window, having conducted the bulk of their recruitment work before the opening weekend.

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The Checkatrade Trophy was to prove a key feature in Sunderland’s season, and the Black Cats set off on the road to Wembley with a low-key penalty shoot-out win over Stoke City’s Under-21s. In the league, a 2-1 defeat at Burton ended the Black Cats’ unbeaten start, and 1-1 draws against Oxford, Fleetwood and Coventry established a pattern that would continue throughout the campaign.

Off the pitch, Stewart Donald acted decisively to cancel Papy Djilibodji’s contract after the French centre-half attempted to return to the Academy of Light despite having failed to report for pre-season training. Charlie Methven had promised the ‘p*ss-take party’ would end – this was Sunderland’s new owners living up to their word.


After stuttering the previous month, Sunderland got back on track with a run of wins against Doncaster, Southend and Plymouth. However, the home game against Blackpool was postponed because of international call-ups, resulting in the first of the games in hand that would become a major feature of the second half of the season.

Having confirmed Djilibodji’s departure the previous month, Sunderland were finally able to complete Didier Ndong’s exit from Wearside, negotiating an agreement that meant they received a £3.5m fee when the midfielder went on to join French side Guingamp in January.

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Sunderland spent the whole of an unbeaten November in the automatic promotion positions, and produced one of their best performances of the season as they beat promotion rivals Barnsley 4-2 at the Stadium of Light.

Josh Maja scored Sunderland’s final goal against the Tykes, taking his tally at that stage to 11 in the league, but the striker’s future was becoming increasingly uncertain, with Jack Ross conceding he was refusing to sign a new contract on Wearside. Ross hoped to keep him for the second half of the season, but the writing was already on the wall.

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December began in fairly farcical circumstances, with Sunderland’s game at Accrington Stanley being abandoned with less than 20 minutes left because of torrential rainfall. The games in hand were racking up, and a pre-Christmas defeat at Portsmouth, with Glenn Loovens’ red card proving crucial, saw the Black Cats drop to fourth position.

The disappointment of an FA Cup second-round defeat to Walsall was tempered by the win over Notts County that took Sunderland into the last 16 of the Checkatrade Trophy, and Boxing Day provided a real highlight, with more than 46,000 fans flocking to the Stadium of Light to watch a 1-0 win over Bradford.


The New Year began with a trip to the seaside, and an unforgettable afternoon that saw almost 8,000 fans cross the Pennines to watch Sunderland start 2019 in style with a 1-0 win at Blackpool. Three 1-1 draws in a row in the league proved damaging, but parochial pride was secured with a resounding 4-0 win over Newcastle’s Under-21s in the Checkatrade Trophy.

Transfer issues rumbled on throughout the month, with Sunderland signing Grant Leadbitter and Will Grigg as well as turning Max Power’s loan into a permanent transfer. Josh Maja moved on though, joining Bordeaux, and while the youngster’s exit made financial sense, the Black Cats would struggle to replace his goals in the second half of the season.

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Sunderland didn’t lose in February, but it was a month when their hopes of automatic promotion suffered a series of damaging blows. The concession of a late equaliser at Oxford was a disappointment, and was compounded three days later when Sunderland failed to beat Blackpool at the Stadium of Light.

When they also drew their following game, a Friday night match with Accrington Stanley, Sunderland’s status as League One’s draw specialists was secured. The Black Cats were in fourth position, and while they still had games in hand, any margin for error in the race for the top two had all-but-disappeared.


It might not have resulted in silverware, but March’s appearance in the Checkatrade Trophy final was still a huge highlight. More than 40,000 Sunderland fans descended on Wembley, with the travelling contingent taking over Trafalgar Square on the night before the final. Lee Cattermole’s missed penalty proved decisive, but Sunderland’s players left London with their heads held high.

It was a familiar story in the league, with too many draws proving crucial. In other circumstances, a goalless draw at Barnsley would have been a decent result, but Sunderland really needed to win at Oakwell if they were to take their opponents’ place in the top two. Aiden McGeady’s foot problem was becoming a major issue, and it was also apparent that Grigg was struggling with injury concerns.

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How on earth do you score four goals at home and lose? Sunderland managed it, crashing to a barely-believable 5-4 home defeat to Coventry that effectively ended their hopes of automatic promotion. Jack Ross tore apart his defence in the wake of the capitulation, but the damage had already been done.

A home game with Portsmouth at the end of the month offered a final chance to keep hopes of a top-two finish alive, but Jamal Lowe’s equaliser effectively confirmed Sunderland’s place in the play-offs. Defeat at Fleetwood was merely a case of rubber-stamping the inevitable.


The conventional League One season ended in a whimper, with Sunderland slipping to a 2-1 defeat in a game that confirmed Southend United’s survival. That ensured Ross’ side would finish fifth, and set up a play-off semi-final against Portsmouth.

Chris Maguire’s strike secured a 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light, and a superb defensive display in the second leg at Fratton Park enabled Sunderland to keep the scoresheet blank and book a return trip to Wembley.

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TOP TEN APPEARANCES (All competitions)

Jon McLaughlin 54

Jack Baldwin 41

George Honeyman 39 (plus 4 subs)

Tom Flanagan 39 (plus 2 subs)

Max Power 37 (plus 8 subs)

Luke O’Nien 36 (plus 15 subs)

Lynden Gooch 34 (plus 13 subs)

Aiden McGeady 34 (plus 5 subs)

Lee Cattermole 33 (plus 2 subs)

Chris Maguire 32 (plus 10 subs)

TOP TEN GOALSCORERS (All competitions)

Josh Maja 16

Aiden McGeady 14

Chris Maguire 9

George Honeyman 8

Lee Cattermole, Lynden Gooch 7

Will Grigg, Luke O’Nien, Charlie Wyke 5

Max Power 4