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Road to Wembley: Sunderland v Charlton 1998

What a game. What an experience. What a devastating outcome. Joseph Tulip opens old wounds by remembering the 1998 Play Off Final.

Michael Gray of Sunderland

I never once thought that we wouldn’t do it.

Anything and everything seemed possible for the ‘new’ Sunderland in 1997/98, with crowds of 42,000 getting behind an attacking team that was truly exciting to watch.

The electric atmospheres, fuelled by a cauldron of sound and Mexican waves at the Stadium of Light reached fever pitch when we turned around a 1-0 deficit against Sheffield United in the second leg of the Division One play-off semi final.

Such was the bond between team and supporters, the thought of a trip to Wembley felt like a magical day out for one big family.

Everyone wanted a ticket, and while my 15-year-old self was tucked up in bed, dad camped outside the SoL overnight to queue for our tickets, and somehow he managed to get seats in the upper gallery area, high above the corner flag to the left of the Wembley tunnel.

A supporters’ bus put on by legendary Sunderland supporter Johnny Heslop departed our home village of Haydon Bridge at about 5am on May 25th 1998.

Spirits were high and talk was confident because after all, had we started the season better we’d have already secured one of the top two positions, occupied by Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough.

I wish I’d taken a camera. It was the days before mobile phones were an everyday accessory. But the memories remain so vivid.

Looking for food, we ended up in what seemed to be a relatively posh eatery around midday, with a bow-tied waiter. But despite enjoying the steak and chips, a teenage Charlton fan gave me a ‘boo’ as I headed for the toilets.

My recollection of the hour or so before the match is quite surreal. I temporarily got lost off from dad in the sea of red and white, and briefly stumbled into a load of Charlton followers singing ‘Super Clive Mendonca’. We even encountered Wish You Were Here presenter Judith Chalmers, in a striking red dress, outside the ground.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Final - Charlton Athletic v Sunderland
Wish You Were Here?
Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

Nobody expected this game to go down as one of the greatest ever played at Wembley.

Charlton were a good side, we knew their strengths, but we would have beaten them at the Valley a couple of months earlier in the league had Alex Rae not seen red after an hour.

Rae was benched for this encounter, with skipper Kevin Ball partnering Lee Clark in midfield. But I distinctly remember watching the Scotsman during the warm-up, the Lambton’s logo prominent on the back of his white Asics training t-shirt, and appreciating his quality touches on the ball.

The atmosphere of old stadia is incredibly special, and at Wembley that day it genuinely felt our team and fans could take on the world.

While Charlton took the lead, and were 1-0 up at half time, we were always confident of getting back into the game, and I was looking directly down on Nicky Summerbee as his corner was met at the near post by Niall Quinn to level proceedings.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Final - Charlton Athletic v Sunderland
Quinny celebrates after bagging the equaliser
Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

When Kevin Phillips lobbed the keeper with a classy outside of the boot finish shortly afterwards, it looked like we had truly turned the tide.

Clive Mendonca had other ideas, however, and every time the game swung in our favour, the Sunderland-born striker dealt another devastating blow.

His hat-trick was clinical, but what hurt the most were his celebrations, the footage and images of which still haunt me to this day. Years later Mendonca said he had a point to prove, but in doing so he wounded our hearts and rubbed salt in.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Final - Charlton Athletic v Sunderland
Mendonca’s been called many things by Sunderland fans. Clive isn’t one of them.
Photo by Michael Steele/EMPICS via Getty Images

One day I’d love to sit down with Mendonca to tell him how he made me feel, but he was just doing his job, and exploited our highly-rated, yet relatively inexperienced defence at the time.

Despite Mendonca’s exploits, we were leading 3-2 after Quinn’s fine second, and I remember looking at the Wembley scoreboard with 82 minutes on the clock, and dad urging Lionel Perez not to waste time with a goal kick to keep our momentum going.

Perez’s inability to deal with the corner which led to Richard Rufus’ equaliser three minutes later was a significant moment, and even after Nicky Summerbee fired us into a 4-3 lead in extra time, that man Mendonca struck his third to make it 4-4.

The penalties that followed were an agonising experience. Charlton had one advantage, taking theirs first, but the shoot-out was at our end of the ground.

Every player scored, even Chris Makin, who breathed a sigh of relief when his got over the line after the keeper got a touch.

It’s a shame Phillips was no longer on the pitch to take a penalty, but what happened to Michael Gray was cruel. I still wonder why he didn’t blast it, but a fine player who would play for England just a year later, had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Play-Off Final - Charlton Athletic v Sunderland
Ilic saves from Gray
Photo by Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images

From my seat there was a split-second time delay – an eerie moment of silence – between Sasa Ilic’s save and the roar from the Charlton fans.

Our response was remarkable, however. As our left back broke down in tears, chants of ‘There’s only one Micky Gray’ reverberated around our half of Wembley.

That we recovered from this set back and stormed to promotion the next season has been well documented, but if the wounds have healed from that Wembley day, the scars remain.

For those who were there, the chance to play Charlton over two decades later in the 2019 play-off final, albeit in the league below, seemed like the chance of redemption we’d long craved.

But the passing of time had perhaps been too great. There was no real message from within Sunderland AFC to make amends for 1998.

A young Sunderland fan
Wounds may have healed, but the scars remain
Getty Images

The supposed bond between the two clubs seemed non-existent inside the now very corporate Wembley, and losing to Charlton a second time in this manner was a bitter pill to swallow for those veterans of ’98.

The EFL Trophy final gives us the chance to win something at Wembley. There might not be a prize of promotion or the FA Cup, but to me this opportunity on Sunday means everything.