Remembering Our Last Play-Off Campaign – Maguire’s Magic A Shot In The Arm

Michael Lough takes a trip back two years when Sunderland kicked off their League One play-off campaign on the back of a bad run of form. Sounds familiar...

If the past year or so has taught us anything, it is how much football usually dictates the social structure of our lives.

‘The match’ normally decides what time we go out on Saturday, what pub we go to, who we meet up with and the result can often determine whether we skulk off home after the game or enjoy a spontaneous night out with friends.

The absence of this throughout the season has been eerie, you just aren’t supposed to be walking the dog three hours before kicking off on the day of a cup final, you aren’t meant to be watching The Chase under an hour before a mid-week fixture.

The general apathy surrounding most games this season has been born of grim necessity, but back in 2019 the sombre mood on Wearside was 100% down to the actions throughout the football club as opposed to wider society issues.

Going into the play-off semi-final first leg against Portsmouth, confidence levels were at rock bottom.

On the pitch, the lads had somehow managed to go from being level on points with second placed Barnsley with two games in hand, with just seven games to go, to finishing 5th after winning just one of our last seven games.

Off the pitch, things had been equally as exasperating, after a season-long charm offensive and slick PR campaigns there was radio silence from the ownership as we prepared for our biggest game of the season.

On the day of the match, I was certainly feeling as despondent as most of the fanbase, rather than feeling the usual stomach-churning sense of anticipation in the pit of my stomach, it felt like a typical Saturday when there was no game on.

My mood was lifted slightly, as I entered Lidl to see an almost fully stocked baked goods section, but I was brought back down to earth with a bump when I realised that this would probably be the highlight of my day.

As I waited for the bus from Grangetown to Ryhope, I observed people going about their daily lives and for once, I envied them and imagined what it must be like to feel completely detached from SAFC and not feel the overwhelming sense of duty to drag myself to the match regardless of circumstance. 

A few hours later, my enthusiasm levels had at least increased a little bit, which I’m sure was completely unrelated to the pints of Birra Moretti I’d enjoyed down Roker seafront. 

Despite the significance of the game, just 26,610 were in attendance, 14,519 less than the crowd for the league game between the two sides just a few weeks previously.

Those who were in the stadium on the night more than made up for the lack of numbers by roaring the lads on at every single opportunity. 

Every challenge from a Sunderland player turned the noise levels up a notch and when Portsmouth tried to get behind their own team, every chant of ‘play up Pompey’ was greeted with a chorus of ‘fuck off Pompey, fuck off’ from the Roker End.

The first half was far from a classic but the lads had the better of the chances, Charlie Wyke had a chance from ten yards out from an inviting ball into the box from Max Power, but this was 2019 Charlie Wyke and he blazed over the bar.

Sunderland thought they’d taken the lead early in the second half when Lyden Gooch’s expert delivery was somehow kept out MacGililvary from point blank range.

On 62 minutes, the ‘keeper was powerless to deny the hosts as Chris Maguire thundered in a volley from just inside the area. 

As the ball hit the back of the net, the place erupted and the Scotsman was mobbed by his teammates as he slid in front of the south east corner. 

Wearside suddenly believed, but any hopes of a convincing win to take to Fratton Park were soon dashed as Alim Ozturk received a controversial red card after bringing down Gareth Evans on the edge of the penalty area.

The Pompey man was going away from goal and Ozturk could even argue that he got a bit of the ball.

Evans dusted himself down and struck the crossbar from the resulting free-kick which saw Portsmouth press for the equalizer but, other than Luke O’Nien deflecting the ball behind with a last-ditch block, Sunderland saw the game out well.

Our lead could have even been doubled, but Maguire’s shot from distance deflected wide off the outside of the post. 

When the full-time whistle went there was a release of emotion and as the players completed their lap of appreciation after the final home game of the they were given an excellent reception.

I had intended on going straight home after the match, but unfortunately my friends’ powers of persuasion were just far too much for me and approximately 3.5 seconds after receiving a text saying, “town mate? Meet in Gatsbys and take it from there?” my thumbs instinctively typed back, “aye, will head there now.”

Ultimately, that result was all we had left in the tank, but it is a reminder that no matter how down we feel, we should never truly write Sunderland off.

Let’s hope that in under a week’s time we’ll all be cursing Lee Johnson’s men for making us believe again.

Michael Lough