McAteer tells Sunderland to spend or face decline

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When Sunderland lost their play-off final to Charlton on penalties, their manager, Peter Reid, stopped the team bus as it passed the turn-offs for Peterborough and ordered his squad to get collectively drunk.

When Sunderland lost their play-off final to Charlton on penalties, their manager, Peter Reid, stopped the team bus as it passed the turn-offs for Peterborough and ordered his squad to get collectively drunk.

This time, however, Sunderland need so much more than a crate of beer and some team bonding. Reid's side of six years ago was a hugely entertaining, talented squad that recovered to win emphatic promotion. Mick McCarthy's boys of 2004 cast an altogether paler shadow.

Jason McAteer claimed losing to Crystal Palace on penalties in Monday night's play-off semi-final "felt like death". Like 10 other, mostly high wage-earners, the midfielder is out of contract next month, and he demanded that the Sunderland chairman, Bob Murray, either spend or accept that the club is likely to follow Sheffield Wednesday into long-term decline.

"It's up to the board to get this team nailed down again with contracts," he said. "Bob's got to decide what he wants to do with this football club because he could lose a lot of talented players. But talented players come at a price.

"Bob and the board have got to sit down and make a decision. Do they want to go for it again, or do they maybe want to slip away like a Sheffield Wednesday? It really is a decision he's got to make and he's running out of time."

Murray, who oversaw the sale of 23 professionals after relegation from the Premiership, is planning more cuts rather than further expenditure and it is unlikely Joachim Bjorklund, Phil Babb, Jeff Whitley and even McAteer himself will be on Wearside next season. McAteer argued that keeping McCarthy might be problematic.

"It's out of the gaffer's hands. The club is run by the board and they have to do some serious thinking over the next couple of weeks to keep him. There are a lot of jobs out there for Mick McCarthy and this board has to sit down to decide what it wants for Sunderland. If they are going to let it be a Sheffield Wednesday, then that's the way it's going to be. But if they put their hands in their pockets and pay these talented players and bring some players in, then we can have another crack at the Premier League. I see this as a crossroads."

At Selhurst Park, all roads lead west to Cardiff. Iain Dowie's transformation of Crystal Palace from a team hurtling towards the Second Division to a side that could outplay Sunderland and keep its nerve in a shoot-out at the Stadium of Light is one of the season's great stories.

Palace practised penalties on Friday and everyone scored bar Michael Hughes, who put his "10 metres over the bar". On Monday evening he struck the decisive spot-kick which took Palace to within a match of the Premiership.

He said: "I never thought we were on our way out during the game [which Sunderland would have won but for a stoppage-time goal from Darren Powell]. You have to believe you will get there. That's vital. We kept saying that to each other throughout the game: 'Believe, believe, believe we can do this' right until big Powell scored."

Palace's progression to the play-off final is all the more remarkable considering they were in 19th place when Dowie took over in December. But although he deserves much of the credit, he insists it is the commitment of his players that has given them their big chance.

"Lots has been written in the press about professional players not being role models," he said. "I don't know any of mine who aren't role models. It's about what they've achieved, taking them from fourth bottom, fifth bottom to the play-off final. It's a gargantuan effort.

"If you take people beyond the limits of what they're comfortable with, they'll get a mental strength, and that's what's happening in training and that's what builds belief.

"I said to them, 'Look at your mate. If you're in adversity, your mate will be beside you', and that's what it's about.".

Although he is confident that they can go all the way, Dowie will take nothing for granted after seeing Palace make the play-offs in the final minute of the regular season when West Ham scored a late equaliser at Wigan.

"I'll approach it as meticulously as I approach any game," he said. "Momentum doesn't count for anything. You have to be able to play and if we play at the level we're capable of, we'll give either of them a game. But we know it's going to be an enormous task."