SUNDERLAND head to Wembley for the fourth time in four seasons this afternoon – with head coach Alex Neil hoping the League One play-off final with Wycombe Wanderers will finally mark the start of the club’s rise back up the leagues.

The Black Cats are coming to the end of their fourth season as a League One club, and while they have consistently found themselves battling towards the top end of the table, they have so far been unable to secure a return to the Championship.

Their first season in the third tier ended in the heartbreak of Wembley defeat to Charlton Athletic, their second was curtailed by the Covid pandemic, and their third saw them come up short again as they lost to Lincoln City in the play-off semi-finals.

There is a marked mood of optimism as they head to Wembley again today, with their two-legged semi-final victory over Sheffield Wednesday having extended their unbeaten run to 15 matches, and Sunderland’s players will also have the backing of around 50,000 Wearsiders, who will be packing out the national stadium.

Neil has generally steered away from making extravagant claims about the future during his time as Sunderland boss, but with two play-off successes already on his CV from his time at Hamilton and Norwich, the Scot readily acknowledges just what winning promotion would mean.

“I think it would start the next phase for this club,” said Neil, who was appointed as Lee Johnson’s successor in February. “Whether it’s transformational or not, I’m not quite convinced. The simple fact is, whether we’re in the Championship or not, next year will come along. It’s not as if it’s going to be the end of anything (if we don’t go up).

“But to get back to where we want to be as a club, the next stage and getting out of League One is fundamental to that. Whether it’s this season or whatever, you’d want it sooner rather than later.

“I think there’s a bit of optimism around now , which is nice, a bit of anticipation of what is to come. We’re not naive, we know there’s a lot riding on this one game. But I do agree, everyone’s got a better outlook on us as a club at the minute, as individuals and collectively. That’s good.”

Winning promotion to the Championship would have an immediate positive impact on Sunderland, with the turnover of the clubs promoted from League One between 2016 and 2020 having increased by an average annual figure of £6.6m per season, a sum that roughly equates to the increased television revenue available in the second tier.

There would also be challenges, with Sunderland’s current wage budget way below the average figure for Championship clubs. The Black Cats would find themselves going head to head with clubs recently relegated from the Premier League, who are supported by parachute payments that can run to around £100m over a three-year period, but the hierarchy at the Stadium of Light have already begun to plan for such an eventuality.

Discussions have also taken place around what would happen if Sunderland were to remain in League One, but the understandable hope is that the next few months will witness a drive to get ready for life in the Championship.

“We’ve already been discussing lots of things,” said Neil. “We’ve had discussions with regards to contracts, possible signings, pre-season – all those things. That’s just the way things naturally happen.

“But because of what’s going to be determined by this game, a lot of things vary massively depending on the result. It’s pretty much a case of having different plans for different eventualities really, so because of that, it’s hard to be too specific about lots of things at the moment.

“Obviously, pre-season doesn’t change, and the dates of the players coming back and things like that. But in terms of where we end up, what we’re looking to do and what the next step looks like, then that certainly becomes different.”

Whatever happens this afternoon, there will be inevitable questions raised over Neil’s long-term future. The 40-year-old signed a rolling 12-month contract when he joined Sunderland earlier this year, with the lack of long-term security leading some to wonder whether he was committed for the long haul or testing the water in the remainder of this season before agreeing to a longer-term deal. Similarly, Sunderland’s owners find themselves in a situation where they can look elsewhere without having to incur huge costs if they decide that is what they want to do.

Neil has dodged questions about his long-term plans so far, understandably insisting that his sole focus is on getting the Black Cats promoted, but as he looked ahead to this afternoon’s game, the Scot conceded that Sunderland, as a club and area, was getting under his skin.

And while he has his own ambitions and goals within the game, he is adamant his decisions will continue to be dictated by what he believes is best for the club.

“I wouldn’t really say my perception of the club has changed, because my perception has always been that it’s a big club that wants to get to the next level,” he said. “It’s been at this level for a number of years now, and there’s been quite a few people had a crack at trying to get it out of where it is.

“It’s certainly not an easy club to manage because there’s so many different factors of it. But I try to eliminate the factors that don’t really concern me and have much of an impact on what’s immediately important.

“When anyone entrusts you take care of their club, and the direction it’s going to go in, and believe in the fact you’re not doing it for your own selfish purpose, but you’re doing it for the best of the club, best of the team and best of the supporters, then I think that’s when people look at it and think, ‘Yeah, we can trust this guy’.

“I hope that I display those traits, because that’s how I feel. I make the best decisions for the team and the club. In that process, I’m last in the line. That’s how I see it, and that’s how it should be.”