In one corner of the League One Play-Off final is a team that was in the Premier League as recently as 2017 with a great history that includes two FA Cup wins.
In the other is a club that has spent virtually every year of its existence in the bottom of English football, with a year-long detour to the Championship last season for the first time in its 135-year existence.
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On Sunday at 12pm (AEST), Sunderland take on Wycombe Wanderers under the famous Wembley Stadium arch as both clubs look to return to the second tier.
For the Black Cats, what turned into a one-year detour in Ligue 1 has now turned into four arduous years in a league they hadn’t been in since 1988.
But for Wycombe, a side whose stats perhaps portray them as the on-field antithesis of modern football, it’s a chance to defy the odds again and return to a league that continues to grow in the disparity between promotion chasers and relegation fighters.
Both clubs couldn’t be farther on the other side of the scale in terms of resources, playing ability and size of everything that concerns them.
Yet here they are, 90 minutes from the championship.
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HOW A SCOTTISH MAN TURNED “FLAKY AND SHY” BLACK CATS INTO A RUTHLESS MACHINE
The old adage says that if you go around the drain enough times, you will eventually fall.
From the 2012/13 Premier League season, Sunderland finished 17th, 14th, 16th and 17th before finally falling in the Championship after finishing dead last in the 2016/17 campaign.
But if Sunderland fans thought it was as bad as it gets, they were wrong.
Things got much worse.
For the second straight season, the Black Cats finished last, winning just seven out of 46 games in the Championship.
Not only that, but football fans got a firsthand look at the club’s demise with the Netflix documentary ‘Sunderland ‘Til I Die’.
If this was painful for non-Sunderland fans, spare a thought for the fighters who gathered at the Stadium of Light every weekend.
In the club’s first season in Ligue 1, they finished 5th in the league, enough for a place in the play-offs.
A victory over Portsmouth in the semi-final brought a day at Wembley against Charlton Athletic.
But Sunderland’s horror run in the Play-Offs finals continued, as a stoppage-time winner from Charlton sent the Black Cats off to another season in League One in what was the third defeat of the club in a Play-Offs final.
The following season brought even more misery and would keep Sunderland third in England for another year, with the club finishing 8th.
In 2020/21, a return to the play-offs was on the cards after finishing 4th in the league, but the Black Cats couldn’t get past the semi-finals.
This season promised to be different.
With Lee Johnson, a manager who had had relative success in the Championship with Bristol City without making many shock waves, it was expected that everything would finally start at the Stadium of Light.
According to Philip Buckingham of The Athletic, “Johnson’s Sunderland was entertaining” as well as “capable of elegant and emphatic victories”.
But what ultimately led to Johnson’s downfall was that his side ‘were often too flaky and coy’, with a 6-0 loss to Bolton Wanderers in late January proving to be the final nail in the coffin , while Johnson was sacked with the club just outside the automatic promotion spots.
In Johnson’s place came Alex Neil, a manager who led Norwich City to the Premier League aged 33.
Under the Scot’s tutelage, he ‘almost single-handedly instilled the discipline and drive to turn the fortunes of a struggling side’ with Sunderland enjoying a 15-match unbeaten streak from February 22 until today. today.
Socceroo Bailey Wright has loved life under Neil, although he admits the main task at hand is not yet complete.
“The results speak for themselves, but he brought a real culture, a real tactical side to our game,” Wright told Sky Sports after the Play-Off semi-final win over Sheffield on Wednesday.
“We have a unit and he brought it more and more. It was a pleasure to work with him, but I’m sure he will agree: the main work is not finished yet.
The Black Cats forward this season has been aided by sniper Ross Stewart.
In just his second season with the club, Stewart has 23 goals to his name after scoring just two last season, despite arriving in the January window.
If Stewart can find his goalscoring shoes when Sunderland need them most, he could write his name in club lore with Neil.
THE ROCK BAND COACH, A 40-YEAR-OLD CULT HERO AND A FAIRY TALE STORY
Wycombe Wanders often struggles to fill a 10,000-seat stadium, having a manager who doubles as a rock singer and a talismanic 40-year-old striker who has gained notoriety through the Fifa series of video games.
Not only that, but according to WhoScored.com, Wycombe also finished 20th out of 24 League One teams in average possession percentage (44.4%) and dead last in pass completion percentage (58.8%) during the season.
All signs point to mediocrity or possibly relegation, but instead Wycombe are 90 minutes away from a second season in the Championship in four years.
For a club that only entered the Football League for the first time in 1993, this was nothing short of a remarkable rise for the Chairboys.
Even arriving in the Championship for the first time in the club’s history in the 2019/20 season came with alarming statistics, finishing last in the league in possession (45.2%) and passing accuracy (56, 1%).
In that year’s League One Play-Off final against Oxford United, Wycombe had just 24% of the ball to Oxford’s 76%, but Gareth Ainsworth’s side emerged 2-1 winners thanks to a penalty from Joe Jacobson in the 79th minute.
Of course, achieving such results without producing box office football brings many detractors.
But Ainsworth doesn’t care, believing the negativity from rival supporters is simply down to the fact that they can’t bear to lose to little old Wycombe.
“It’s something opposition fans will try to grasp because they can’t stand being beaten by a smaller side like Wycombe,” Ainsworth said on The Totally Football League podcast.
“What they should be doing is watching us say, ‘Wow, it’s a small club but they’re doing well.
“We know what we are, we do it well and we focus on every game. I don’t think anyone saying who we are affects us in any way anymore. We’ve had it for too long now.
The strike force duo of Sam Vokes and Adebayo Akinfenwa sent Wycombe back in the Championship.
Vokes joined the Chairboys at the start of the season and has been in sensational form, scoring 17 goals.
It was only three years ago that the 32-year-old was getting Premier League minutes with Burnley and he still has a lot to do with Wycombe being the lucky beneficiary of his remaining years.
Akinfenwa, the 40-year-old built like a brick house, will retire at the end of the season regardless of Wycombe’s position in the league.
Despite his age, he made valuable contributions throughout the campaign, scoring six goals.
Arriving at Wycombe after imploring managers to ‘call me on WhatsApp and get me a job’ after being released by AFC Wimbledon in 2016, Akinfenwa now holds the honor of being the all-time top scorer of the Chairboys in the English Football League, with 52 to his name.
A final moment of glory for Akinfenwa, whether or not he gets Play-Off final minutes, would be a moment of glory for the hulking striker.
For Sunderland, a club Buckingham describes as a “car wreck of a football club, who have lost A$448 million over the last 15 years”, to fail the final hurdle for the fourth time would be colossal.
Fans have been going through the buzzer lately and this Play-Off final is shaping up to be the Black Cats’ best shot at finally returning to the Championship in somewhat more familiar surroundings.
But Wycombe has Sunderland’s Wembley hoodoo on his side.
Not only that, but they’ve proven they can win lousy; if anything, that’s their modus operandi.
Yet the Adams Park faithful ultimately don’t care how the job gets done.
Covid deprived Wycombe fans of seeing their side in their only season in the Championship and Ainsworth is on a mission to change that.
With two clubs desperate to move up to the second tier for a host of unique reasons, it promises to be a special occasion no matter what.