The play-off fear Portsmouth have to overcome as they enter theatre of unknown
They shouldn’t be called the play-offs. Well, at least that title tends to be modified with some of the stronger Anglo-Saxon language origin on offer when I get talking about it.
Not that I’m against the end-of-season divisional drama. Far from it. At the expense of household harmony, it’s a fair shout I won’t miss a second of the 15 matches taking place across the Football League over the next 18 days.
These are games which lend themselves to riveting TV. And, in the 32 years since their advent, they’ve rarely disappointed.
It’s just Pompey’s place in proceedings takes the ride from a pulsating, adrenalin-fuelled white-knuckle rollercoaster to a nauseating head-spinning turn on the waltzers after being targeted for special treatment by the gypsy hosts.
And you get the feeling things are going to be no different as we renew acquaintances with our familiar foes from Wearside this weekend.
For as long as the play-offs have been around, the Blues’ two appearances to date feels a fairly sparse incursion into the cut-throat action, which more often than not delivers plot-line twists to put Game of Thrones in the shade.
Given how those two experiences played out, it feels we should be thankful for largely being on the outside looking in.
Leicester in 1993 and Plymouth three years ago provide all the evidence you need fair outcomes are hardly one of the central tenets of what we’re about to witness. Nail-biting drama? Yes. But justice and the best taking their reward over inferior foes? That’s secondary at this time of year to Sky Sports subscriptions and sending pulses racing.
Before Paul Cook’s team locked horns with Plymouth around this time at the end of the 2015-16 campaign, I was informed by someone who should’ve known better if we couldn’t defeat Derek Adams’ side over two games Pompey didn’t deserve to advance to Wembley.
If that person hadn’t been around to witness Leicester rob Jim Smith’s 23 years earlier, such a short-sighted sentiment could possibly have been forgiven.
Of course, the long and very offside limb of Ian Ormondroyd contributed to one of the great miscarriages of justice in the club’s history, as one of the finest Pompey sides were denied a place in the Premier League.
They fell in those two legs to the Foxes without their talisman Paul Walsh - who was suspended for both games after a skirmish with Martin Gray, ironically of Sunderland, when the side’s automatic promotion hopes combusted at Roker Park in the penultimate game of the regular campaign.
But these are the kind of events and mitigating circumstances which can condemn a side across the course of a play-off clash.
And so we saw, as arguably the great rival side of Cook’s time in the club eventually triumphed over their foes.
There was a feeling which resided from regular observers of the Pompey side of 2016, that, on their day, few lower-tier outfits could live with them. If they’d played Plymouth 10 times you would’ve fancied them to take the majority of wins.
Yet, it was a team on their knees who faced the Pilgrims in the crucial second leg. And that after they were taunted by Jamille Matt in a breathless first encounter, which saw the striker grab a key second goal after he should have been dismissed for planting his head into Michael Doyle.
The memory of Cook calling off a Fratton Park training session on the eve of the deciding game with not enough fit players at his disposal remains vivid.
Without wishing to linger too much on the Home Park pain it was an eventual late, late defeat which took place with Adam Barton operating as a makeshift defender with Matt Clarke and a string of team-mates unfit. Crocked duo Gareth Evans and Danny Hollands hobbled around before both being withdrawn in the first half.
Yet, again, these are exactly the moments which can afflict promotion bids when it comes a couple of high-stakes showdowns.
Thankfully, there are a couple of strong factors which can give us hope heartbreaking play-off experiences don’t develop into a feeling of being jinxed in such circumstances.
There’s the fact there are few connections with this team of Kenny Jackett’s and those who last fell at a similar hurdle in League Two.
Gareth Evans, Christian Burgess and Ben Close are the only players likely to be on the pitch this weekend from three years ago, with Jack Whatmough and Brandon Haunstrup still at PO4.
Yes, Pompey’s winning run has made way for stuttering form which has eroded momentum going into the game – but that’s comfortably topped by Jack Ross’ side who have won just one of their past seven fixtures.
There’s certainly potential for the natives to become restless at the Stadium of Light on Saturday night for a group of fans who appear split over support for their manager.
And if the Blues thought they were dealing with pressure, just consider what the prospect of failure and another year in League One could do for Sunderland – a team who expected to bounce back to the Premier League at the first attempt and have now suffered successive relegations.
In September, owner Stewart Donald spoke of getting the playing budget down to £11m while spending £3m to assemble the squad. That was supplemented by the reported £4m paid for Will Grigg in January after selling Josh Maja.
By any stretch, those figures blow away the rest of the division, and the suggestion it’s the biggest budget the league has ever seen may not be too far wide of the mark.
Make no bones about it whatsoever, Sunderland not gaining promotion would represent a monumental failure.
Even taking all those factors into account for hints about how this nail-biting narrative will unfold, the reality is these are two well-matched sides locking horns and, in the environs of the play-offs, there’s little indication how it will play out.
Maybe Jon McLaughlan will throw one in. Perhaps ref Andy Woolmer will bow to the pressure of 40,000-plus Mackems and give a soft penalty.
Who knows, Pompey’s s***housery could be suited to the play-off format or the Wearsiders’ experience under the spotlight could work in their favour. We have no clue.
What we can say is when it’s your team involved, watching what unfolds is unlikely to be enjoyable. When battle commences, it’s a fair bet zero of the minimum 180 minutes will be free of fretting and stress. And literally anything can and probably will happen in this end-of-season footballing theatre of the unknown.