The 2019 play-off final - our seventh consecutive losing appearance at Wembley, and probably the most painful. For me, it was the third time I had been to Wembley with Sunderland. The first was as a teenager in 1985 to the League Cup Final against Norwich, then again just a few months earlier in 2019 for the EFL Trophy final against Portsmouth.
Back in ‘85 we went to Wembley with high hopes that we had a real chance of landing some major silverware. Ninety minutes later, one defeat and a completely flat performance from Sunderland, we all started the long trip home on the coach, with the thought in my mind that there wasn’t a worse place to lose than Wembley.
Fast forward to March 2019 for the EFL Trophy final and, now living in North Wales, I travelled down by train, looking forward to finally seeing Sunderland at Wembley again but, with that little nagging thought from 85 still in the back of my mind.
What followed was one of the most amazing atmospheres I have encountered.
Wembley rocking from both sets of fans, both teams going for it and Sunderland didn’t ‘bottle it’ this time. Yes we lost, but still - I enjoyed it. I came home on the long trip back feeling we had given it a go, and had only lost by one kick in a penalty shoot-out.
Some of the ghosts of 85 had been partially exorcised.
So it was a couple of months later that I made the same journey from North Wales. Leading up to the game there was a sense of disappointment among the fans that I knew that we had ended up in the play-offs. Sunderland, had been in or around the second automatic promotion spot all season. When we weren’t, we had games in hand which meant for much of the season that second place was ours to lose.
Going into the EFL final in March we had only lost two games in the league all season. But starting with an incredible 5-4 defeat to Coventry our form spluttered and our last seven games in the league produced just two wins and three defeats.
Consigned to the play-offs, we scraped through to the final.
This time it was different from the experience of a couple of months before. Sunderland hadn’t sold out their allocation of tickets and there were noticeable gaps in the upper tiers of Wembley of unfilled seats.
Our fans were more muted on the approach to Wembley Way than they had been in March. Maybe because they had done ‘the Wembley experience’ two months before and it wasn’t the same second time round. Maybe, they didn’t fancy our chances after our form had fallen off, or didn’t fancy Charlton in a repeat of the play-off final of 98.
Who knows, that’s just how it was.
Once the game got underway, Charlton gifted what has to be one of the most incredible own goals seen to put us ahead. I remember looking at the person next to me, each of us with our eyes wide in astonishment at what has just happened. Maybe this would be our day after all.
It was the last thing they gave us for the rest of the afternoon. Sunderland, even with a gift of a one-goal start, never got going and our fans watching the game being taken away from us, were subdued. Charlton controlled much of the game and their fans were bouncing for most of the match.
Sometimes you just have to accept the better team won.
What was cruel was the winner, deep in injury time and with almost the last kick of the game, even though everyone could see it coming long before it arrived.
I’ve tried to reason what happened immediately after the ball went in the net, because I did it too. Before the ball had even been retrieved by Jon McLaughlin and with the roar of the Charlton fans celebrating the goal loud in everyone’s ears, a large portion of the Sunderland fans stood up and headed straight for the exits.
We knew it was the winning goal and there would be no time for Sunderland to come back - at least that was in my mind. The final whistle blew before I made it to the stairwell and I remember Alim Ozturk sinking to his knees, a gutted expression on his face, but then with just a touch of puzzlement as he looked around and saw the fans leaving already.
Since then, I have come to admit to myself that rarely in all my years as a Sunderland fan have I left before the end of a game and definitely not at a Wembley final. Staying to sing like a lunatic after the whistle in 85, and applauding the players after March 19.
Maybe this time it was just too cruel to take.
Like the woman from the Netflix show sobbed: ‘Why is it always us?’.
Our two contrasting performances at Wembley in 2019, the two quite different experiences even though we lost both times made me revaluate my theory of ‘there isn’t a worse place to lose than Wembley’. Now it goes ‘there isn’t a worse place to lose than Wembley when you have played like crap’.
It is as long trip home when you have several hours to reflect that your team failed miserably in a major final by failing to put the opposition under any serious pressure.
In the days afterward, Stewart Donald spoke of turning what had been a team that had gained 85 points that season into a 100 point team.
For whatever reason and distracted by a supposed takeover saga that ran for the whole summer, there was little meaningful team strengthening and players who had performed well in our first season in League One left - particularly fullbacks.
Many fans never forgave Jack Ross for the play off defeat, some reasoning that his team should have nailed automatic promotion anyway when it was still in their hands in the final weeks of the season. There was a bad vibe amongst supporters that never went and started to gain momentum from preseason for the following campaign.
He was sacked after 11 games of the 2019-20 season with the club in sixth place.