KEVIN PHILLIPS scored his 34th goal for Sunderland last night. It was more than just another one. It kept Premiership passions alive on Wearside.
The side-footed shot Peter Reid's one-man goal machine steered past Simon Tracey seven minutes before half-time earned Sunderland a place in the First Division play-off final against Charlton on 25 May. It also earned Phillips a place in posterity alongside Brian Clough.
Reid's pounds 600,000 summer signing from Watford equalled the post-war club goalscoring record Clough established in the 1961-62 season. He will get the chance to break it at Wembley.
And Lionel Perez will have the opportunity to perform the kind of goalkeeping acrobatics which made him the saviour of Sunderland's semi-final victory. Thrice in two minutes, as Reid's players clung nervously to their aggregate lead midway through the second-half, the Frenchman dived to deny the disbelieving Graham Stuart, Marcelo and Dean Saunders.
Sunderland should have been on their Wembley way by then but in 45 minutes of all-out attacking they broke through just twice. It took them 21 minutes to wipe out the deficit they suffered in the first leg at Bramall Lane last Sunday. Allan Johnston's cross-shot from wide on the left was deflected past Tracey by Nicky Marker.
Sunderland's second goal, in the 38th minute, was less prosaic. It was crafted with a searing left-wing break by Michael Gray, and finished by Phillips after Nicky Summerbee steered the ball low and hard deep into the Sheffield United box.
Sunderland went for the jugular but Johnston was denied by a post and by the diving Tracey, who also kept out a Quinn header from point-blank range. As each close shave passed, the Blades remained in with a chance. To the relief of the locals, though, they were blunted by the last line of the home guard. "Those saves were world class," Reid enthused, and with little exaggeration.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Perez; Holloway, Williams, Craddock, Gray; Summerbee, Ball, Clark, Johnston; Quinn, Phillips (Dichio, 75). Substitutes not used: Rae, Ord.
Sheffield United (5-3-2): Tracey; Wilder, Holdsworth, Marker (Stuart, 58), Sandford, Quinn; Devlin, Ford (Dellas, 71), Hamilton, Saunders, Marcelo. Substitute not used: Morris.
Referee: M Pierce (Portsmouth).
Nationwide Football League Play-off finals
Charlton Athletic v Sunderland
Wembley, Monday 25 May
Grimsby Town v Northampton Town
Wembley, Sunday 24 May
Colchester Utd v Torquay Utd
Wembley, Friday 22 May