Just over a month earlier we had lost the FA cup semi-final to Millwall in heart-breaking fashion, which was the first time my happiness had been deeply affected by a game of football. I remember sitting on the bus coming home from Manchester not saying a word and looking glumly out of the window. After all the build-up and anticipation, I felt crushed.
But no matter, this time was going to be different, all we had to do was beat Crystal Palace and I would get my trip to the Millennium Stadium to see us return to the promised land of the Premier League. Although the prospect of Jeff Whitley coming up against Patrick Viera should have frightened me, but as a naïve 8-year-old I didn’t have time for crushing realism and all I wanted was Sunderland to be back in the Premier League.
The build up to this game was even worse than it had been for Milwall, I sat at school all day staring distantly into space thinking about the upcoming match. There was simply no time for trivial matters such as times tables when we had a playoff semi-final on the night. Sadly, however I had reluctantly accepted that I would be watching the match on telly until I got in from school to find three tickets for the match sat on the table. Never in my life have I got changed so quickly off came my uniform and on went my Sunderland shirt and before I knew it I was in the car buzzing with anticipation.
Even to this day I still get a special feeling walking from the town to the ground, but on that night my stomach was doing cart wheels. This feeling only intensified as Dance of Knights was blasted over the tanoy, my teeth began to chatter and I was bouncing up and down on the balls of my feet. Before long a deafening roar went up around the ground as the music switched to Ready To Go, and the players ran out of the tunnel to applaud the North Stand.
In true Sunderland style we started poorly and were fortunate not to fall behind early on as Riihilahti struck the post. But, after riding our luck at times, Kevin Kyle gave us the lead after taking the ball down on his chest and firing home from a Jason Macateer cross and just moments later the Stadium of Light was in raptures. Marcus Stewart powered in a header at the near post, and suddenly Sunderland were 45 minutes away from the final. As the ball hit the back of the net pure joy seeped through me as I jumped up and down hugging my dad almost in tears. But as he cynically pointed out at half time "I wish we had done that in the last five minutes".
In the second half Palace threw everything forward but their hopes appeared to be dashed when Gray was dismissed for a second yellow card for a rash challenge on McAteer. But then came a moment - a moment which I will always dislike Palace for.
In my life, there a only a handful of goals I have never watched for a second time - one of those being Yaya Toure’s equalizer in the League Cup Final, and another is Crystal Palace’s aggregate leveller from that night. The memories are just too painful, but in my 8 year old mind, we had been robbed. I can still see the ball being floated to the back post and Mart Poom being fouled before Darren Powell headed home for the Londeners. Of course Poom may well have just misjudged the flight of the ball, but I will never put myself through the trauma of finding out.
I don’t need to tell anyone what happened next - with the scores locked at 4-4 on penalties, Jeff Whitley decided to do a stuttered run-up before hitting a tame penalty which was saved comfortably by the Palace keeper. Naturally, our opposition scored their following spot kick and the Premier League dream was over for another season, crushing my world in the process.
For the second time in a matter of months Sunderland AFC had broken my heart, but as I said earlier it was a watershed moment in my support for the club and all the years of ups and downs I’ve experienced since can be attributed to those two games that season.