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My Favourite Game: The 1998 Play-Off Final

As this series continues it's come to be my turn to offer up my own favourite game. Whilst there's over 25 years of games to recount in my memory, none stick out like this one does. Despite the result, it remains to be one of my favourite games...

Memories of this game go back even before kick-off. Back to the 2-0 win over Sheffield United which booked our place in the final. I remember little about that game in all honesty but I do still recall the feeling afterwards of being so full of adrenaline I simply wanted to just run everywhere with a big ridiculous smile on my face. For some reason we sprinted full-pelt back to the car parked near the Roker Pie Shop and got home back to Shields in record time. For a fat lad, this is some feat. And also probably the last time I ran anywhere.

Then came the queuing for tickets for the final. A blisteringly hot day in Sunderland we didn't really expect queues to be that long. After all, there was a number of days to get tickets, and every season ticket-holder was apparently guaranteed at least one.

The queue was more horrendous than I could have ever imagined. All the way from Black Cat House, round past Joan's Cafe, up the East Stand to where we eventually joined it round by where our season tickets were in the North West Corner.

Being young and quite frankly stupid we didn't have any money barring the right amount for tickets. Nothing to drink, nothing to eat -- absolutely nothing -- and the ticket office didn't open for another 3-4 hours, let alone the queue start moving.

When it eventually did some cleverer souls than us in front had a radio and some deck chairs, so we listened in on the build up to the 1998 FA Cup final between Arsenal and Newcastle. By the time we were halfway down the East Stand they took pity and allowed us to sit down on their chairs.

The spirit in the queue was fantastic, but there were highlights and lowlights. All of which were memorable. Firstly when Marc Overmars scored the cheers in the queue were like SuperKev had just scored on the opposite side of the Stadium walls. A lowlight however was this prick who kept "moving up the queue" or as everyone else called it and called him out on it, "pushing in". The chap, who I'd later in life realise looked not too dissimilar to Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys, constantly reminded everyone it didn't matter because he was guaranteed a ticket. Eventually our new friends in front caused a bit of a scene and he trudged back never to be seen again.

By the time we were nearing the hallowed doors of Black Cat House the long day began to take it's toll. In an age before mobile phones, I was dispatched to the nearest pay-phone to make a reverse charge call to my parents to bring food, any food for us. We'd only been there for about 5 hours, but once again, I'll remind you that I was then and still am, built for comfort.

Eventually we got in the doors. Just in time to see on the TV screens Nicolas Anelka bearing down on Shay Given to put a nail in the coffin of the Mags, at the Stadium where we'd surely be victorious a few days later.

The travel down and pre-match was pretty unremarkable barring it being my first memorable trip to the big smoke, seeing in the distance from the hotel room the Millenium Dome being built and thinking how great that will be, and also someone on our coach who looked the absolute double of Jo Guest, who briefly captured the imagination of myself and my friend. We'd only just turned 14 years old, don't judge us.

On to the big day itself, and another scorching day, absolutely perfect for football. There's something about the play-offs where it always seems to be blisteringly hot, you can almost set your watch by it. That's not the right phrase at all unless you've got some sort of weather watch, but I'm leaving it in anyway.

Anyway, yes. We approached Wembley Stadium. The famous Wembley Stadium which apparently I went to when we were last in the play-offs against Swindon but have no memory of whatsoever on account of being about five years old.

Was this it? Was this the famous hallowed turf that every bangs on about? Even in 1998, perhaps having been treat to the Stadium Of Light's recent building, I considered Wembley to be a bit of an overrated shithole. Crumbling, dirty, little to no organisation -- a little disappointing.

I was fully confident of victory. Maybe two or three nil would probably be the result in my mind as I looked around at a sea of Sunderland fans from our near pitchside vantage point. Charlton, our opponents were a decent team, but we were better. Much better in my mind despite the table showing we were only one place and two points better than the Londoners. That was something that stuck in my mind a bit as despite my bravado, there was an undercurrent of nerves that was building by the second.

The teams were in. Despite an excellent season I was still a little narked that Darren Holloway was given the nod ahead of Chris Makin at right-back, but our defence was superb. As it needed to be with Lionel Perez in goal, a player I never really liked to be honest despite his 'cult hero' status among the fans.

Having endured former popstar Shola Ama putting us through the national anthem, it was time for kick off and both teams started quite poorly and nervously, almost in tribute to the performance put in by Ama minutes earlier.

Kevin Ball went close with a header for us but that was about as good as it got as Charlton began to take over. Some poor defending right in front of us allowed Sunderland-born striker Clive Mendonca to open the scoring, turning the normally consistent Jody Craddock and Darren Williams with consummate ease to slot past Perez before celebrating right in front of where we were stood.

Charlton continued to dominate up until the final ten minutes or so of the half. Lee Clark shot over while Nicky Summerbee would have equalised had it not been for a decisive interception. The first half was over though. 45 minutes passed as if it was 45 seconds.

Peter Reid saw fit to bring on Makin at halftime for Holloway, a good move for my money and it made us look a lot stronger, and within five minutes of the restart we'd got back on level terms.

Summerbee, who had a great game, drilled in a corner which was met by Niall Quinn to head in at the near post before windmilling away in celebration. Given the first five minutes, it looked like we'd finally got our act together and were going to go on to win comfortably.

Eight short minutes later we were in raptures as Super Kevin Phillips gave us the lead. With the ball pinballing around between the Charlton defence and our midfield, it eventually dropped to the diminutive front-man who guided it past Sasa Illic before he raced over, just like Mendonca did earlier, to celebrate in front of us. I've no idea how it happened but I ended up three rows in front of where I was originally sat/stood hugged and jumping around with some blokes 15-20 years my senior. The sort of behaviour which would now be frowned upon one would imagine.

The joy wouldn't last though as Mendonca grabbed his second goal of the game. Again it was poor defending as he seemed to elude Williams like he wasn't there before cooly finishing. 2-2 and back to square one.

We only had to wait two minutes or less for the lead to be restored though, once again through Quinn. A cross comes in, Quinn chests down and lashes in from a tight angle. Fifteen minutes to go and everything should be fine now. We can hold on for that long can't we?

Then a curious move was made. Off comes Kevin Phillips and on comes Danny Dichio. Not a bad player, but not a replacement which really needed to be made for my money. If... IF... Charlton score then I'd rather we had Phillips on the pitch than not.

Dichio compounded my thoughts by missing the easiest of chances seconds after coming on, electing to side foot a volley with the power of a kitten towards Illic from a few yards out rather than stoop to header. To this day it hurts to watch, and you can't help but feel Phillips would have buried it.

The miss was made to look worse minutes later when Richard Rufus headed in a corner with only a few minutes remaining. This time we can lay the blame purely at the hands of Perez, who went walkabout towards the ball and got nowhere near it, the ball looping right to where he would have been stood.

Extra time beckoned, nails were chewed beyond all repair and how the hell were we to get through another half an hour of this back and forwards game. One goal though would surely do it. That remained the mantra in my mind. Simply down to the law of averages we can't be so sloppy again at the back and if we get the lead once again we surely will hold on to it.

Within five minutes it was Summerbee who had handed us the lead, and got a goal which he deserved. Teed up by Quinn he lashed a low shot in from the edge of the area at the far end of the Stadium. That had to be it. It had to be because quite frankly nobody, not even Charlton fans, could really have expected much more from a game which had us on every emotion possible to this point.

Unfortunately there was time for another twist in the tale -- as unfathomable as it seemed -- as Clive Mendonca scored his hat trick following more poor defending. A cross was allowed in far too easily by Mickey Gray before Mendonca with the freedom of London was allowed to control and finish unmarked in the six-yard box... and there was still a good 15 minutes to play.

For the first time all game (or so it felt) we went an extended period without a goal. 120 minutes were up. It was to be a penalty shootout, and approximately 35,000 Mackems took up smoking.

Mendonca scored... Summerbee scored... Jones, Kinsella, Robinson Newton... Ball, Makin, Rae, Johnston, all scored. Everyone was scoring and after 120 minutes of football and 12 penalty kicks, it was 6-6 in the shootout.

Shaun Newton stepped up for Charlton with the seventh and placed it high beyond a diving Perez, who went the right way for once. Up stepped Mickey Gray, a local lad and fans favourite to continue the scoring-fest before our very eyes.

Something wasn't quite right though in my mind. For some reason something in my water told me that there was a miss on the cards and I felt it was now. I couldn't watch it, and didn't even see the infamous kick for a few days afterwards once we got home. Instead I stared into the eyes of those around me who could stomach it. You could hear the kick, the roar from the far end of the Stadium where where the Charlton fans were situated, and the collective "awwwh f--k" from our lot as thousands of hands were placed on heads against a backdrop of jubilant Charlton fans in the private boxes above us.

Turning around you could see the Charlton players pile on to Sasa Illic while Gray cut a forlorn figure, wandering around alone, visibly slumped but not dropping to his knees or breaking down, staying strong as a chorus of "There's only one Mickey Gray" broke out. Perhaps that was what made him seem like he'd eventually drop before Niall Quinn grabbed him in held him up as the rest of the team came to console him.

We hung around for a few minutes to applaud the efforts of a team which had given their absolute maximum and then some but ultimately couldn't get over the final hurdle. Some brief moments of madness and misfortune changed a game which had absolutely everything.

When I look back it was possibly one of the most thrilling and exhilarating games which I've ever seen in the flesh. I can't help but ponder, if possible, would I have changed the result?

I have to say that I wouldn't. This stand out as still my favourite game regardless of how it ended, and whilst you might think it odd that somebody's favourite was ultimately so heartbreaking and tinged with sadness, consider this - not everyone's favourite song is the most upbeat, and not everyone's favourite film the funniest.

Some things are just perfect as they are and serve as a lesson for the future, which this game ultimately did as without it going how it did, we'd never have had such a successful and incredible year the one after that. It all happens for a reason.

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