Playing Charlton at Wembley was bound to bring back memories of our last ever visit to the old Wembley, in May 1998. That game – the details hardly need to be recounted – marked the end of a halcyon era in my Sunderland-supporting career.
The 1997-98 season was just fantastic. It kicked off with the opening of the Stadium of Light and a friendly against Ajax. For months when I’d travelled up to Roker I’d taken time to gawp at the building works for the new stadium and to drop in to the little visitor centre. Nothing really prepared me for entering the ground for the first time and seeing its scale and the size of the crowd. In fact, the crowd was larger than the ground capacity due to some inventive ticket-selling and the first thing I ever did in the Stadium of Light was kick lads out of our seats - they spent the game sat on the steps climbing up the West Stand.
The game itself was a non-event, except for the arrival of Status Quo by helicopter which was just a bit thrilling. The first game proper was a pulsating 3-1 win against Manchester City watched by over 38,000 and then we went off the boil.
Crowds dropped and the atmosphere quietened… and then suddenly the team back to click. And what a team – Quinn and Phillips up front, supported by Summerbee and Johnston, was the best attacking combination I have ever seen.
In full flow we were unstoppable and exciting to watch.
Best of all, I travelled from London to virtually every weekend game, spending many a happy Saturday in the buffet car on the East Coast Main Line. I particularly remember tanking Portsmouth 4-1 away, winning 3-0 at Crewe, winning 1-0 in a tense game at Maine Road, and being in big Sunderland followings at Oldham and at Swindon on the last day of the season.
Our patchy early season form cost us dear and we went into the penultimate game at in-form Ipswich needing to win, but lost 2-1, our first defeat in two months.
I travelled straight from work, in a suit, clutching a few cans. I was gutted.
I went to the play-off at Sheffield United, where we got a crucial away goal in losing 2-1, and wasn’t confident about the second leg. I had to watch that on TV at work, with a few mates, as I couldn’t get leave to travel from London. The atmosphere was fantastic even on a portable television. Then came the trip to Wembley.
By this stage I had attended two games at Wembley where we hadn’t scored and watched another, equally dispiriting performance, on TV. At the end of the first half it looked like another let-down but then the goals started flying in.
In many ways the game was a microcosm of our season – a poor start, some scintillating football, goals galore, but dodgy defending which cost is in the end.
I lived quite close to Wembley so headed after the match to my local in Greenford. A couple of drinks in, I fell asleep. It had been such an exhausting experience to watch that second half and extra time, I wondered how the players managed.
I later learnt that they had had the stamina to get absolutely hammered in a pub near Peterborough on the way back home. Fair play. The experience bonded that squad which, with a couple of additions to shore up the defence, destroyed the Championship in 1998-99. By then I was married and had a baby on the way so my carefree days of travelling home and away were over.
21 years on, me and my 8-year old daughter will be flying into London to see if we can win at Wembley at the seventh time of asking. This team wouldn’t get close to the 1997-98 team but they’re an honest bunch with loads of team spirit and you can’t ask for more than that.
Whatever happens I’m proud of what they’ve achieved this season and I’m looking forward to next season whether it’s the Championship or League One.