Sunderland begin their League One journey this Saturday against Charlton Athletic, and it’s a fixture that brings back memories of a truly epic game, twenty years ago, when the two sides met at Wembley in 1998 in the Division One play off final.
Sunderland, under Peter Reid, had had a good campaign during the 1997-98 season but missed out on automatic promotion by one point, finishing in third place. The now legendary pairing of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips had seen Sunderland finish the season as highest scorers and Sunderland looked a good bet to see their way through to the Premier League.
In the play-offs they saw off Sheffield United in order to face Charlton Athletic in what would turn out to be an epic showdown at Wembley Stadium on 25 May 1998.
The players walked out onto the pitch to a wall of noise that day from fans, as fireworks and the sounds of Let Me Entertain You reverberated around the old Wembley stadium.
The big occasion saw both sides start nervously, and Sunderland struggled to get into the game initially as Charlton opened the scoring with Clive Mendonca - ironically a Sunderland fan himself - with a superb strike after twenty-three minutes. An immediate response from Sunderland almost saw Quinn score moments later as Sunderland finished the rest of the half stronger but still 1-0 down at half time.
Peter Reid switched things around at half time; Darren Holloway was replaced with Chris Makin after the gaffer’s half time team talk fired up the lads who came bursting out in the second half.
Nicky Summerbee drilled a corner from the right and found Quinn who headed the ball home to equalise after just five minutes from the restart - and Charlton were still catching their breath when Phillips beat the offside trap to lob Sasa Ilic in the Charlton goal some eight minutes later to put Sunderland 2-1 in front... and the fans started to believe.
For Charlton, Mendonca proved to be a class act and was having the game of his life, scoring again to bring Charlton back on equal terms. Once more Sunderland could not hold onto a lead - a problem that had plagued them for all of that season.
Then the game swung yet again to Sunderland in the 73rd (wahey) minute when Clark crossed in from the right to find Quinn, who cushioned the ball onto his chest and then knocked it past the Charlton ‘keeper.
Sunderland looked all set to join the Premier League until, with five minutes to go, Perez came rushing out from a corner to catch a ball he never had any chance of making; Richard Rufus duly scored a free header to make it 3-3, sending the game into extra time.
In extra-time goals continued to flow as Nicky Summerbee scored what looked like a game winning goal only for it to be cancelled out by Mendonca yet again, scoring his hat-trick, to send the game into penalties.
Incredibly all ten designated penalty takers scored from the spot taking the game into sudden death, upping the already unbearable pressure.
Charlton’s John Robinson scored and Quinn converted making the penalty score 6-6. Who would be next? Shaun Newton, who scored for Charlton. The next penalty had to go in for Sunderland...
The whole season had come down to one kick - and Mickey Gray recalls the moment:
I really didn’t want to take one, it was something I just didn’t want to do. I was a Sunderland boy, living the dream playing for my local team, and I just didn’t want to be the person responsible for us losing such an important match.
It’s just the occasion, it gets to people. After Niall scored, I was looking around to see who was left to take one because I didn’t want to. I looked at Danny [Dichio]. He was sat in the centre-circle with his boots off by his side, so it obviously wasn’t going to be him.
I think I was the oldest person left who hadn’t stepped up yet, so I decided I’d better have a go. I saw Ilic diving the way I was going to kick the ball and I just thought: ‘Oh God no, he’s going to save it’.
All the emotion hit me and I was thinking, ‘Oh God, please somebody just run over and give uz a hug’. I didn’t hear them at the time, but I’ve heard since that all the Sunderland fans started singing my name and that was very nice of them, because they understood the kind of pressure I was under.
But I just couldn’t wait to get off that pitch, get into the dressing room and go home.
The game remains as one of the most memorable, dramatic and exciting of play off finals - not just in Sunderland’s folklore, but in the history of the beautiful game.
Truly, it was football at its very best and also at its very worst. It was a cruel way to end the match and for Sunderland fans, who had arrived to the capital in their thousands, they left heart broken but full of pride for the lads who had given everything that day in a thrilling encounter.
Despite the disappointment, Peter Reid would rally the players together and rebuild for the following season where Sunderland would storm the division and go up as champions with a record breaking 105 points - swings and roundabouts, eh?