Sunderland’s first season in League One was supposed to be a novel, brief affair with third tier football. With that in mind, the intention was to enjoy it. Enjoy seeing new grounds, enjoy winning matches on a regular basis and enjoy a day out in Wembley for a final that did not particularly matter.
Sure, we were going straight back up, right?
On a personal note, 2018-19 season was one of my favourite as a Sunderland fan. The foundation of the Irish Supporters club brought together many people who all shared a similar passion for the lads and found themselves marginalised for not being normal and supporting Liverpool or Manchester United in Ireland!
The build up to the final was mildly chaotic. Getting a ticket for myself was fine. The plan moved on to sorting one for Dad and the other lads who were struggling. Steward Donald’s one customer number one ticket was probably as fair as possible but it did lead to some mini panic attacks until everyone was sorted.
The lads met up early that Sunday morning for the first flight out to London Luton for the game. Although it was not all plain sailing before we had even left Dad missed the bus from the West of Ireland to the airport only to be rescued by a generous neighbour!
The scenes from Trafalgar Square were the topic of conversation. It left a hint of jealousy but also excitement for what was to come for us all who missed out on the Saturday night fun.
When we arrived in London, we made our way from the airport via bus and train towards Wembley way. We wanted to soak up as much as we could of the atmosphere aware that this may be our last time in Wembley for a while - little did we know, we would be there two months on.
A quick burger en route eradicated all formalities. Food did not matter on a day like today. Once we got off the train, it was a case of “how many cans can you get into you pre-game?”
Before we camped ourselves on a pathway looking over Wembley way to get on it, we had a chance encounter with Stewart Donald who to his credit was generous with his time and said hello to us all.
And so we began to drink, and drink a lot! The atmosphere was building nicely and we even had the pleasure of witnessing a Portsmouth fan get a smack or two for unruly behaviour towards a Sunderland fans who were minding their own business.
For some of these lads, it was not just their first time to Wembley, but their first time to a Sunderland game, and it was a delight to see their beaming smiles and excitement as they gazed at the Wembley architecture from afar.
As it got closer to kick off, we made ourselves up to Wembley Way and excitement was building. I had convinced myself that the result didn’t matter but I could not help but feel nervous as kick-off approached.
“Imagine seeing us win in Wembley?”
We got into the stadium and overcame the endless amount of elevators to take our place alongside the gods. We summarised that it was essential that we have a couple more beers, sing a few songs and a pre-match toilet visit before the game commenced.
As I took my seat, I couldn’t believe the sheer amount of people in attendance for a Checkatrade Trophy final. The stadium was a cauldron of noise, an atmosphere I have never experienced before. Wisemen say played across the stadium and 40,000 Sunderland fans could be heard singing in unison. A moment that will never be forgotten.
As the game began, the lads started well and created a number of chances with Lewis Morgan in particular looking bright in the early exchanges. We needed to get a goal after all this pressure. Minutes before half time, Sunderland were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box.
Up stepped Aiden McGeady.
With the aid of a deflection, the Republic of Ireland man sent the red and white end of Wembley delirious, and me three rows forward clinging on to a man I have never met before.
As we reached half time, I decided to meet my Dad for a quick chat on events from the first half as we were a couple of sections apart. I found him standing with 4 pints in his hand with the other Irish Black Cats laughing and chanting - that’s what it was all about!
Jack Ross’ tenure could be summarised in the rest of this game. So close but yet so far. The lads tried to cling on for the victory but could not hold out from the constant Pompey pressure.
Extra time it was. Unfortunately, there were no more pints so we had to make do. Extra time was more of the same. Pompey continued to pile on the pressure and got a deserved second. I was convinced it was over. At this stage, I had convinced myself this was the FA Cup final so we had to win and get into Europe. We lost our chance.
That was until the Irish wizard popped up again on the stroke of full time and got a shot off that trickled over the line. This time I managed to stay at my seat but I did lose my voice from all the screaming and a pint of beer was bounced off my headlike a new football hitting the tarmac for the first time. It is just a shame I did not catch it.
And so for the penalties.
Our flight back to Dublin was departing at 7:10PM. At this stage I had begun to consider staying the night if we won. In the end, it didn’t matter.
What can I say? We lost and the worst man to miss one, did. I was never more convinced of a man missing a penalty than Lee Cattermole. He didn’t look comfortable or confident one bit. And that was the end of the dream.
Pompey won a somewhat meaningless final, yet I was a little bitter they did. Maybe because it was Pompey or maybe because we never win at Wembley. The discussion leaving the ground was that we will let them win today, but we will get promoted.
Look how that turned out.
The only thing left to do was for myself, Dad and a couple of other lads to get out of Wembley and run for the airport as fast as we could.
Leaving Wembley is a disaster. Unfortunately, I have seen Charlie Wyke run faster over five yards than the que leaving Wembley Way. Getting out of that area is enough of a reason alone to avoid Wembley games. Panic was setting in. Not only did we lose but we will miss the flight too.
Thankfully, we eventually made it in just enough time to reach the Dublin flight. We hopped on almost immediately.
Back in Dublin by 8.30PM, the defeat sobered us and drained us. Sunderland drained us, as they continue to do. The lack of extra time pints was on Dad’s mind.
“Fancy a pint?” he asked us.
“Yeah go on then” was the swift response as we bussed into the city to bring the curtain down on an eventful day in the English capital.