Six years ago Bailey Wright fulfilled a dream that many in football possess – playing at Wembley and winning promotion in a massive game.
On that day in 2015 Wright was just 22, a young rangy centre back, as Preston North End smashed Swindon Town 4-0 to book a special return to the Championship.
Now the Socceroo is hoping for a repeat at the famous London stadium, as his side Sunderland kick off their playoffs campaign with two legs against Lincoln City this week. The Black Cats face Lincoln away on Wednesday (Thursday morning Australian time) before the second leg at home on Saturday afternoon (Sunday morning time).
If the Australian and Sunderland are successful, then a playoff final against either Blackpool or Oxford United and the opportunity of Championship football awaits at Wembley. Wright describes that match was one of his all-time career highlights and is keen to experience it again.
“Definitely, you look back on your career and I certainly look back at my time at Preston, which I had many highs and many lows, and the ultimate high was getting promoted at Wembley,” the defender told The World Game.
“I felt part of that club for many years, I had strong relationships with people throughout the club, throughout the city. They’re the memories you hold fondly. When you look back on your career, when you’re sat on the sofa with your grandkids one day and you tell them a story - they’re the sort of stories you share.
“To know there’s a possibility of being able to recreate that with Sunderland is certainly a motivator and something that can inspire you. It’s something I want to achieve, but it’s a tough challenge and it’s not easy.
First Sunderland have to get past the Imps, who have impressively won two promotions to go up the football pyramid in the past four years. In December the north-east outfit flogged Lincoln 4-0 in League One, and then the two clubs drew 1-1 in March.
"Lincoln have been one of the consistent teams throughout the season and we’ve already had some tough games against them and we know this is going to be no different," Wright said.
“You can put whatever tag you want on it, but we’ve got to focus on ourselves and make sure we’re prepared, which we will be. We’ve been training hard and it’s kind of been a breath of fresh air to have a week or so being able to train without a game, which we haven’t been able to have for a really long time.
“It puts into place things we want to work on and improve on. They’re a team that have come up and risen quite quickly, they’re a respected side and of course we’ll show them respect, as we always do.
“But at the end of the day we’ll make it about what we want to do and nullify them, and I’m sure it will be a couple of good games of football and of course we hope we’re the ones who come out on top.”
Sunderland have faced their own challenges this season including dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, the club being bought by 23-year-old Swiss Kyril Louis-Dreyfus in February, and a change in manager with the appointment of Lee Johnson in December.
After a difficult start the Black Cats finished fourth in League One with 20 victories, 17 draws and nine losses, for a haul of 77 points. Wright, who played 37 matches in all competitions and scored two goals, admits it has been an unusual campaign but believes Sunderland are well-placed heading into the playoffs to go all the way.
“It’s been an interesting season for everyone in football I think,” the 28-year-old conceded.
“Playing a full season without any fans in is always going to be strange, and it certainly felt different. There’s no other way to describe it – it’s crap without fans.
“Now we know there’s a couple of games coming up with fans in it’s obviously added to the excitement of playoffs with what has been a steady season for ourselves. There’s been a change of ownership, a change of manager and through that there’s always change and having to readjust to things but we’ve done well.
“And now we find ourselves – of course we wanted to push for automatic – but that’s always going to be difficult and we fell short of that.
“The positive is we’ve got the playoffs and we’re going into it with a lot of positivity and confidence knowing that it’s going to be tough, but on the back of a season where we’ve been fairly consistent.
“The playoffs are always exciting and there’s everything still to play for. Lincoln is going to be a tough game but we know how important it is as individuals, and as team and to the city, because it’s massive for everyone in Sunderland.”