Feature - 10 years on, John Oster reflects on Sunderland’s Palace heartbreak

John Oster
John Oster
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THE ONE enduring image of the 2003-04 play-off semi-final remains the feeble Jeff Whitley penalty which propelled Crystal Palace a step closer to the Premier League’s swag bag.

It wasn’t the five-goal first leg thriller at Selhurst Park, nor was it 10-man Palace’s stoppage time life-saver at the Stadium of Light after Neil Shipperley went punished for using his considerable bulk on Mart Poom and propelled the tie into extra-time.

Whitley’s nervy wander to the penalty spot, followed by the tamest of shots, was a painfully flat note for Sunderland to end their season on.

There would be no financial sanctity of an instant return to the Premier League.

Instead, a Palace side, who had enjoyed a remarkable transformation from the depths of the Championship table under Iain Dowie, would go to the Millenium Stadium and ultimately pip West Ham to a place in the top flight.

But Whitley was not the only player in red and white to suffer the stomach-churning guilt of missing a spot-kick in that night’s Stadium of Light shoot-out.

Both Jason McAteer and John Oster had preceded Whitley in missing their opportunities – the latter seeing his shot hit the inside of the post, roll along the goal line and then out the other side.

“I think Jeff Whitley’s was remembered more clearly, which was lucky for me!” jokes Oster, looking back on the game 10 years on.

“But it was disappointing to end the season that way.

“I don’t actually remember a lot about that game – apart from my penalty.

“But Palace had come from nowhere that season under Iain Dowie and they were on a roll.”

The woodwork proved to be an evil temptress for Oster in semi-finals that season.

His free-kick which crashed against the underside of the bar was the closest Sunderland came to a breakthrough in the FA Cup semi-final against Millwall at Old Trafford.

Until last May’s Conference play-offs with Gateshead, those two games in 2004 was the closest the winger had come to featuring in a showpiece final.

But when, at 35, Oster finally got to Wembley, there proved to be a cruel sting in the tail after Gateshead’s defeat to Cambridge – a loss he believes was more painful than losing in the semi-finals with Sunderland.

“There is probably no better way to get promoted than through the play-offs,” he said.

“But, on the other hand, the disappointment you feel when you lose in the final is even harder to take, when you’re just 90 minutes away.

“You get to Wembley and get your hearts broken there.

“I don’t think it’s as bad getting beaten in the semi-finals.”

That 2003-04 season proved to be the only campaign of Oster’s six-year career at Sunderland, which saw him hold down a regular starting spot after the playing squad had been decimated by the 19-point relegation from the Premier League.

Even then, it took Kevin Kilbane’s move to Oster’s former club Everton for the Welsh international to be given an opportunity to feature under Mick McCarthy.

Oster said: “There was a clause in my contract. If I played another game, then Everton were due x amount of money.

“But when Kevin Kilbane moved to Everton, that got lifted, which allowed me to play.

“It was a good season for me with Stuey Downing coming in from Middlesbrough and then Julio (Arca) on one side and me on the other.

“We were probably more of a workmanlike team, but that got us to the play-offs.

“We had agreed a wage deferral that season, so there was a lot going on at the club.

“The financial repercussions of relegation are horrible on both players and staff. People lose their jobs who don’t deserve to.

“But we did feel that with the squad we had, we could mount a decent challenge to go back up.”

When Sunderland eventually did earn promotion the season after their play-off dejection, Oster had left the Stadium of Light.

A loss of form saw Oster sent on loan to Leeds, before a couple of late night off-the-field incidents, prompted Sunderland to sack the wideman, who then joined ex-Sunderland assistant manager Steve Cotterill at Burnley.

“I was out of contract after that season, and, funnily enough I spoke with Alan Pardew at West Ham, who were in the same division,” he said.

“I got married that summer, went away on honeymoon to think about it and eventually signed a new contract at Sunderland.

“Early on in the season, my form dipped and I went on loan to Leeds which was where the incident happened that got me sacked and I ended up going to Burnley, to work with Steve Cotterrill, who I obviously knew from when Howard (Wilkinson) was in charge.

“Both Sunderland and West Ham went up that year, so I felt I missed out, but then I eventually got promoted at Reading.”

Oster left Reading after their relegation from the Premier League in 2009 and joined Palace on a free transfer, where he spent a year working under Neil Warnock – now back in charge at Selhurst Park.

Palace currently lie only a point above Sunderland after a solitary point from their last three games, albeit they conceded a last-minute equaliser at West Brom last weekend.

But with Sunderland still reeling from their 8-0 drubbing at Southampton, Oster knows that the Black Cats desperately need to restore some self-belief with a positive result on Monday.

“The result at Southampton is still fresh in everyone’s minds,” said Oster, who continues to combine playing for Gateshead with punditry work on BBC Newcastle.

“The scale and magnitude of the defeat has left a legacy.

“You should not be losing by that many in the Premier League, no matter who you’re playing against.

“It was always going to be difficult against Arsenal, but two ridiculous mistakes by two experienced players have proved costly.

“Even a 0-0 would have restored some confidence.

“The manager must be scratching his head because there’s nothing you can do to eradicate errors like that.

“It didn’t help with QPR and Newcastle both winning over the weekend.

“Now they are back in the relegation zone and the Crystal Palace game is one where they do need something.

“That’s not easy though. Neil Warnock has got Palace playing some good stuff.”