The end is very much nigh, the regular season ended without much fuss for all those in contention, with the obvious exception of Plymouth, who had a very time and bombed themselves out of the playoffs at the last hurdle via a 5-0 mullering to MK Dons. Sunderland on the other hand, went about their business in a suspiciously relaxed manner, with our 1-0 victory over Cole Stockton’s Morecambe setting us up for the game Sky and the EFL desperately wished was the play-off final, a mammoth two-legged fight against Sheffield Wednesday.
Two clubs who should likely be nowhere near the third tier if it wasn’t for some impressively awful ownership issues over the years, but there’s only room for one of us to inevitably lose to the Dons or (sigh) Gareth Ainsworth at Wembley. So with that in mind, today’s edition of Played For Both Sides will be looking at players who have not only turned out for Sunderland and Sheff Wed, but also ones who have dared to defy all of our usual habits and actually get promoted while doing so. Will it help get everyone in the mood to cheer the lads over the line? Or will it just make us all the more sad remembering happier, times. Probably neither!
Admittedly, probably not the best place to start any article roughly near a play-off campaign, at least not for those of a red and white persuasion, but here we are. Long before his accent went all weird, Micky Gray came through the ranks of first Manchester United, and then his hometown club of Sunderland way back in 1992, an exciting left-sided player, initially utilised as a winger, if not even further up the pitch. Gray made the left-back position his own for the majority of his 12 years on Wearside. Although he played his role in the promotion winning season of 95/96, and the oh-so-painful relegation back down from the Premier League in 96/97, Gray is most definitely remembered more notably for his role in Peter Reid’s all conquering teams of 97-2001.
A formidable partnership down the left was formed with the arrival of Allan Johnston in 1997, with the pair of them seemingly getting an assist or four every game, accumulating in a third place finish in Division One at the end of 97/98.
And then the play-off final. Wembley. Charlton. Penalties. And of course, it was Micky Gray, the local lad who had to miss (fluff) his spot kick. Gray will probably never shake that missed penalty fully, but he was also part of the team spurred on by that disappointment who went on to blitz the league the very next year, winning the league with 105 points. So impressive was Gray’s form, he, alongside Kevin Phillips, made his England debut that same year, still a novelty for any player not playing in the top flight.
Much like Sunderland as a whole, Gray took his good form into the Premier League, and was again a key player, ultimately taking on the role of captain following the departures of older heads Kevin Ball and Steve Bould. Unfortunately however, Gray was very much part of the team that immediately began to stutter and fall apart after our two consecutive seventh place finishes. The fourth year in the big time led to us setting the record points low in the Premier League as we bombed out on a magnificent 19 under entirely too many managers.
There ended Gray’s Sunderland career, as he initially left on loan in 2003 for a spell with Celtic, before permanently joining Blackburn in 2004. Three years in Lancashire were broken up with two stints on loan at Leeds before moving to Wolves in 2007, before finally arriving at Sheff Wed in 2009 (first on loan, then joining permanently).
It would be nice to say that Micky’s career as an Owl ended well, but, after an initial decent run and scoring in a Yorkshire derby against Barnsley, Gray couldn’t help keep Wednesday in the Championship, with the club drawing 2-2 on the final day of the 09/10 season against relegation rivals Crystal Palace, and down into League One they went. Gray retired at the end of that season, with his best years very much coming in red and white – hopefully we get to see our own version of Micky’s career this weekend, with a lovely pair of Sunderland wins, and Sheff Wed being left in League One for another year.
Of the current batch of players at both clubs, there are one or two to have jumped sides over the years, but most likely taking his place in red and white this weekend will be January signing Danny Batth, promotion specialist extraordinaire. Centre-back Batth came through the ranks at Wolves, making his debut in 2009 and eventually notching over 200 appearances for the Black County’s finest which only came to an end in 2019. During that decade, Batth found himself as an integral part of the team who had seen Wolves rise from League One in 13/14 and the Championship in 17/18, winning both divisions.
Earlier in his career however, Batth took in two loan spells at Sheff Wed, first in 2011 for a 10 game run (weirdly after also making a single appearance for Sheff Utd the same season), and again the following season. Whilst on loan with the Owls, he enjoyed the first taste of promotion in his career, as Wednesday finished second in League One in 11/12, the club’s last taste of the third tier until the current season.
That season was enough to see Batth steadily introduced to Wolves’ team, where he stayed until his appearances gradually dried up as the club got back to the Premier League in 2018. Initially a loan away to the Championship with Middlesbrough in 2018/19, before a permanent move to Stoke later the same season, Batth was a regular for the Potters until he headed to the North East in January 2022 to shore up Lee Johnson’s incredibly leaky defence.
Johnson famously noted he’d tried to sign Batth multiple times in his career, so it was slightly hilarious when LJ was sacked just 12 days after finally landing the giant centre-back. Injuries slowed Batth’s initial promise (and let’s all forget his role in that Bolton game) but since his reintroduction to the team, he’s formed a key partnership with Bailey Wright, so with any luck, that can continue and we can add another promotion to his already impressive list by the end of the month.