IT is a tale of disappointment that stretches back 35 years, but when Sunderland add another chapter to their play-off record this month, the hope is that they will finally be able to deliver a happy ending.

As they gear up for the first leg of their play-off semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday on Friday night, Alex Neil and his players find themselves preparing for their club’s seventh play-off campaign. Some have been more memorable than others, but the stark reality is that Sunderland have ended up losing in all of the previous six.

Will it be a case of lucky seven this time around? This is a run-down of the horrible history that the Black Cats will be attempting to put right.

1986-87 – Div Two/Three play-off

Gillingham 3 Sunderland 2, Sunderland 4 Gillingham 3 (6-6 on aggregate, Gillingham won on away goals)

The play-off format was different in the 1980s, with clubs from different divisions meeting each other to settle relegation and promotion matters. Having finished third bottom in the Second Division, Sunderland took on Gillingham, who had finished fifth in Division Three, in a home-and-away showdown for a place in the second tier.

With Bob Stokoe at the helm following the late-season departure of Lawrie McMenemy, Sunderland lost the first leg at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, with two goals from Mark Proctor being overshadowed by a hat-trick from Gills forward Tony Cascarino.

Sunderland were strong favourites for the return game at Roker Park, and while Howard Pritchard fired Gillingham into the lead, an Eric Gates double levelled things up on aggregate. Both goalkeepers saved penalties, before Cascarino’s fourth goal of the tie put Gillingham back in front.

A Gary Bennett header sent the game into extra-time, but Cascarino scored again and while Keith Bertschin scored to make it 6-6 on aggregate, Sunderland were beaten on away goals and dropped to third tier for the first time.

1989-90 – Div Two play-offs

Sunderland 0 Newcastle 0, Newcastle 0 Sunderland 2

Sunderland 0 Swindon 1

By 1990, the play-offs had switched to the format that is still in place today. Denis Smith’s Sunderland side finished sixth in Division Two, setting up a semi-final against derby rivals Newcastle. Even today, the games are remembered as two of the most emotionally-charged Tyne-Wear encounters of the modern era.

The first leg finished goalless at Roker Park, with Paul Hardyman receiving a red card for a foul after his penalty had been saved by John Burridge.

The second leg, at St James’ Park, was a raucous occasion, with goals from Eric Gates and Marco Gabbiadini sealing a Sunderland victory.

Swindon Town were the opponents beneath the Twin Towers, and in a somewhat underwhelming final, Alan McLoughlin’s deflected first-half strike settled things.

However, there was a twist in the tale. Swindon were found guilty of financial irregularities and demoted two divisions, reduced to one on appeal. Having been the side that lost out to the Robins in the play-off final, Sunderland were promoted to Division One.

1997-98 – Div One play-offs

Sheff U Sunderland 1, Sunderland 2 Sheff U 0

Sunderland 4 Charlton 4 (Charlton won 7-6 on pens)

The Northern Echo:

Having finished third in Division One, Sunderland saw off Sheffield United in the semi-final to secure a place at Wembley. Kevin Ball’s opener in a 2-1 defeat at Bramall Lane proved crucial, with Nicky Marker’s own goal and a typically-assured finish from Kevin Phillips at the Stadium of Light setting up a final against Charlton.

What followed is still regarded as the greatest play-off final of all time. In a helter-skelter game, Wearsider Clive Mendonca gave Charlton a first-half lead, only for second-half goals from Niall Quinn and Phillips to leave Sunderland ahead at the hour mark.

Mendonca’s second goal hauled Charlton level, but the Black Cats looked to have claimed a winner when Quinn restored Sunderland’s advantage three minutes later.

Richard Rufus levelled it up for Charlton, sending the game into extra-time, and while Nicky Summerbee scored in the 99th minute, Mendonca completed his hat-trick five minutes later to take the game to penalties.

In a sensational shoot-out, the first ten penalties were all scored. Up stepped Michael Gray, and when his effort was saved, Charlton secured a 7-6 win.

2003-04 – Div One play-offs

Crystal Palace 3 Sunderland 2, Sunderland 2 Crystal Palace 1 (4-4 on aggregate, Palace won 5-4 on pens)

The Northern Echo: Sunderland Palace

With Mick McCarthy at the helm, Sunderland had finished third in the second tier as they looked to bounce straight back to the Premier League following their relegation the previous season. That set up a play-off semi-final against a Crystal Palace side that had risen from the bottom half of the division at the start of the year to gatecrash the top six.

Marcus Stewart’s penalty gave Sunderland the lead in the first leg at Selhurst Park, but quickfire goals from Neil Shipperley and Danny Butterfield handed Palace the advantage. Kevin Kyle made it 2-2 with five minutes left, but Sunderland were unable to hold on, and Andrew Johnson struck an 87th-minute winner that would ultimately prove crucial.

The second leg looked to be going the Black Cats’ way when Kyle opened the scoring and Stewart added a second on the stroke of half-time.

Julian Gray’s 86th-minute dismissal put McCarthy’s side in an even stronger position, but Darren Powell scored a 90th-minute goal to send the game to penalties. John Oster and Jason McAteer missed for Sunderland, only for Shaun Derry and Wayne Routledge to fail with efforts that would have won it for Palace. However, when Jeff Whitley’s weak effort was also saved, Michael Hughes sealed a Palace win.

2018-19 - League One play-offs

Sunderland 1 Portsmouth 0, Portsmouth 0 Sunderland 0

Charlton 2 Sunderland 1

The Northern Echo:

Sunderland’s first campaign in League One ended in them finishing fifth under Jack Ross, setting up a play-off semi-final against Portsmouth.

Two tight matches followed, with Chris Maguire’s goal in the second half of the first leg proving decisive. Maguire’s strike settled things at the Stadium of Light, and thanks to a resolute rearguard action, Sunderland dug in to claim a goalless draw at Fratton Park.

That set up a Wembley reunion with Charlton, and while the game was not as explosive as the two sides’ meeting in 1998, it ended with a familiar feeling of red-and-white heartbreak.

Things could hardly have started better for Sunderland, with Dillon Phillips’ goalkeeping error resulting in a Naby Sarr own goal after just five minutes. Ben Purrington levelled ten minutes before the break though, and Patrick Bauer swooped from close range in the 90th minute to send Charlton back to the Championship.

2020-21 – League One play-offs

Lincoln 2 Sunderland 0, Sunderland 2 Lincoln 1

The Northern Echo:

Sunderland’s most recent play-off experience came last season – and ended in more disappointment at the hands of Lincoln. Lee Johnson’s side had finished fourth, and their fate was effectively sealed when they were outplayed in the first leg of the semi-final at Sincil Bank. Tom Hopper and Brennan Johnson scored to leave Sunderland with a mountain to climb.

The turnaround looked to be on when Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke both scored in the opening 33 minutes of the second leg on Wearside.

However, Sunderland faded in the second half and while Lee Burge saved a penalty, Hopper’s 56th-minute finish proved decisive, condemning the Black Cats to another season in the third tier.