Holding a 2-1 advantage over Luton after the first leg of their semi-final, the Hatters stand in their way of reaching the richest game in football – the play-off final – and the means to unlock hundreds of millions of pounds available to those who play in England’s top flight. The Black Cats spent a decade in the Premier League, before they were relegated with four games remaining at the end of the 2016-17 season.
Sunderland’s plight is better known than most, in large part due to Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die fly-on-the-wall documentary which started with optimism of an immediate return to the top tier, but instead catalogued the disastrous, often embarrassing relegation to League One. That documentary helped inspire Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney to buy Wrexham but now the Black Cats are hunting a Hollywood fairytale of their own.
The third level of the English footballing pyramid is arguably one of the most difficult divisions to escape, as Leeds too found in recent years, and Sunderland finished in the play-offs three times before moving back into the Championship in the 2021-22 season.
However, Tony Mowbray is on the brink of something extraordinary.
After Alex Neil’s departure on 21 August to take charge of Stoke – despite having led the Black Cats back into the second tier – Sunderland have flourished.
Despite having one of the youngest squads in the Championship, with an average age of just 23.4 years, they are unbeaten in their last 10 matches.
The Hatters’ meteoric rise eclipses even that of Sunderland, having been outside the Football League as recently as the 2013-14 season, though they are more established in the Championship, playing in their third season.
But Sunderland will be encouraged by their 1-1 draw with Premier League side Fulham in the FA Cup – although the Cottagers made a number of changes from their usual starting XI – and Mowbray has argued against those who believe promotion would come too soon for his youthful side.
They have the potential. And a 46,000 seater stadium with passionate fans who would relish the opportunity to take on their old rivals Newcastle in the first northeast derby since March 2016.
However, Sunderland – if they return – will be returning to a wholly different local footballing landscape. While they have travelled to Grimsby and Port Vale, their local rivals are on the cusp of a return to the heights of Europe and have become one of the richest football clubs in the world.
In contrast, Sunderland have had a chaotic near-constant change of ownership which has been a source of contention for the fans. Their path to the play-offs was also far from straightforward, having started the final round of matches outside the top six, but Millwall’s capitulation from a two-goal lead to suffering a 4-3 defeat against Blackburn, who went into the game without a win in eight, allowed Sunderland to sneak into sixth.
Securing promotion could also be a fitting final tribute for Manchester United’s Amad Diallo, who scored at the Stadium of Light last week, and Paris Saint Germain’s Edouard Michut. Diallo has netted 14 times this season in 41 appearances and is likely to be welcomed back to Old Trafford after impressing during his spell on loan.
Sunderland have the experience and they won a play-off final as recently as last year, but the knockout matches are notoriously difficult and Luton will prove tough opposition tonight at Kenilworth Road.