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Niall Quinn reminisces about ‘magical’ Sunderland days ahead of play-off final

Niall Quinn (right) helped Sunderland achieve promotion in 1999 (Paul Barker/PA)
Niall Quinn (right) helped Sunderland achieve promotion in 1999 (Paul Barker/PA)

Former Sunderland striker Niall Quinn admitted that the dressing room became the “most magical place” in the aftermath of the Black Cats’ 1998 play-off final loss to Charlton.

The former Republic of Ireland international was part of the side who were beaten by the Addicks in the First Division play-off final, losing 7-6 on penalties after initially drawing 4-4.

However, Sunderland bounced back one season later after a record-breaking campaign saw them secure Premier League promotion with 105 points.

Niall Quinn with the play-off trophy
Niall Quinn posed with the play-off trophy (EFL handout/PA)

Quinn was speaking on behalf of the EFL ahead of Sunderland’s Sky Bet League One play-off final against Wycombe at Wembley on Saturday afternoon, where a spot in the Championship is up for grabs.

He told the PA news agency: “Our one (play-off final) in ‘98 still reverberates the pain and the let down of having been so close. We were in the lead three times I think in the game.

“My best memory of the day was the door slamming on the dressing room when we eventually got to our dressing room, maybe half-an-hour after the last penalty.

“(Then boss) Peter Reid demanded a commitment from us individually, one-to-one, ‘are we going to come back and are we going to make a go from this and start on day one?’

“We had a terrible start to that (1997-1998) season, we had a hangover after being in the Premier League the year before, we got relegated on the last day and we didn’t start for about 10 to 12 games, but we got going brilliantly.

“Peter Reid put the question out there, demanded commitments from us and everyone committed to return back to the club and nobody was going to look for a transfer – he wasn’t going to have to sign millions of players.

“We had our holiday, came back and we had a brilliant three years from that moment on.

“We ran away with the Championship and we had two great years in the Premier League. I think it was born out of the reaction to that defeat that day, because we could have easily fallen out as teams do.

“But the group stayed strong and it was the most brilliant dressing room, the most magical dressing room, to be in for those three years after that day.

“I’ll never forget the comradery and the spirit of the dressing room, but also the demands made on each other by the players.

“I get the feeling that the current mood in the Sunderland camp is on that upwards trajectory, demanding more from each other, overcoming that fear that was in the club for the last few years.”

Patrick Roberts (second right) celebrates
Sunderland beat Sheffield Wednesday in the play-off semi-finals (Zac Goodwin/PA)

Saturday’s final will be Sunderland’s third play-off League One promotion attempt in four years after losing 2-1 to Charlton in the 2019 play-off final and falling short against Lincoln last season in the semi-finals.

Alex Neil’s side beat Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 on aggregate to secure a spot in the final and Quinn was full of praise for the Black Cats boss, who took charge in February following Lee Johnson’s departure.

“Some people actually feel that he (Neil) talks a kind of language that they’ve waited quite a while to hear.” Quinn added.

“That it’s simple enough in one way, but actually by applying it and making it happen, not only talking about it, but showing the benefits of it.

“In that two or three month period, I think the players have learned to play his way, learned to adapt to situations his way.

“Effectively his management style has rubbed off on them and they’ve bought into it and they’re all doing better individually as a result.”