Heartbreak, agony and glorious failure. Since 1973, all of Sunderland’s Wembley appearances can be defined by at least one of those brief descriptions.
The two jaunts that immediately followed Stokoe’s heroics were agonising in their lack of splendour, although 1990 had eventual reprieve as promotion was achieved via a technicality.
Our most recent visits certainly fall into the glorious failure category, being defeated by eventual Premier League champions in one game and being unlucky in a penalty shoot out earlier this year. 1992 may have been heartbreaking after a valiant, rollercoaster ride to the FA Cup final, but there was no shame in losing to the Liverpool team of that era.
No game encapsulates all three of the aforementioned emotions better than what happened in 1998 though. In fact, it was a game that enacted every single human emotion possible from the supporters and probably discovered ones that no one had ever felt before. You were probably sick of hearing about that day well before it was confirmed we would face Charlton in the League One Play Off Final, the build up to this Sunday only solidifying that further.
While the comparisons to that day are obvious and fair enough if you’re wanting to drum up some interest to the neutral, it’s pretty irrelevant. The Sunderland team who line up at Wembley this time around won’t care about what happened in 1998, most of them won’t even remember it. As Luke O’Nien said in reference to it “I was barely born.”
That’s exactly the mentality needed as well and it’s a stance that sums up the change in attitude at Sunderland. This isn’t a team that looks backwards, Jack Ross has instilled a commendable resilience, meaning his squad are always looking forward. No dwelling on disappointments and not thinking the job is done until promotion is confirmed.
Look at the way the respective finalists celebrated their semi final wins. For Sunderland, there was certainly passion and emotion, but it wasn’t dissimilar to any other big win we’ve had throughout the campaign.
At Charlton, there were fans on the pitch and it looked like a premature promotion party.
Given what Charlton have been through and the adversity they have faced, it’s hard to deny them a bit of euphoria but Sunderland have been through the wringer as well, arresting the slide after back to back relegations, and suffering such a severe lack of playing staff that the management team that had to make up the numbers in 5-a-side during pre-season.
That said, what has happened between pre-season and now will help Sunderland massively on Sunday. From every set back to every hard-fought victory - and a Wembley appearance earlier in the campaign with a desire to right some wrongs will certainly help too.
This is bigger than the Checkatrade though, there’s no novelty surrounding the fixture. I’m sure every Sunderland fan travelling down will have a great time leading up to 3pm on Sunday but once that time arrives, it won’t be about just “enjoying it no matter what.”
This is a chance to keep the rebuild of the club going and to keep our momentum. It’s a chance to give multiple generations a chance to see the lads win at Wembley. It’s a chance for players who never thought they would have the chance to be heroes at a club this size to create a moment that will be remembered by fans forever.
If this side demonstrate the kind of strength that they have many times throughout this season, there’s every chance they’ll be only the third Sunderland team to notch a Wembley win.
Should Jack Ross end the heartbreak, the agony and the glorious failure, it will truly show that Sunderland has transformed.