I don’t know about you, but if you say the name of a certain team, I immediately get a vision in my head.
Say Liverpool... I think European Cup glory, the Kop singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and don’t forget the beachball. Or Stoke City.....I straight away think ex-Sunderland players, the mighty long throw-in, and Tony Pulis with his club shop jacket and cap. Say the name Charlton Athletic, and I just tut and think of unhappy memories and sad times.
You can look all the way back to the 1930s, before the war, when we actually had a very good team. The season after winning our last top-flight title, in 1936, we played Charlton away and lost.... okay, we got a win later in the season and went on to win the FA Cup, but in our first 10 matches against the men from The Valley, we lost seven.
Things got a little bit better over the years. Our record from the 1950s through to the 1980s was pretty decent. One or two might have been there to see an amazing 8-1 win in 1956. Johnny Hannigan and the ‘Clown Prince of Football’ Len Shackleton destroying the Addicks in one of Roker Park’s largest ever wins.
But then came THAT Play Off Final.
It was 1998. Tony Blair was the popular and charismatic Labour Prime Minister just a year into his first term. Cool Britannia was in full swing with Oasis and Spice Girls topping the charts. The Stadium of Light still had nice shiny red seats after its first season as our home.
We had battled with Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest for automatic promotion and came up agonisingly close. 90 points would usually be enough to go up, but we finished third. We edged past Sheffield United over two legs - helped by a crackling atmosphere at the SOL. We were off to Wembley to play Charlton.
I was a little ankle-biter at the time, and it was the first time I properly remember a football match. I wore something red and white and sat down expecting of course a Sunderland win. Why wouldn’t I? (I know now of course things are rarely that simple with our team) Clive Mendonca, the self-confessed Sunderland fan, with a Mackem accent as strong as anybody has the game of his life scoring a hattrick on Wembley’s hallowed turf.
A brace from big Niall Quinn and one from Super Kevin Phillips contributed to a pulsating 4-4 draw. I remember little apart from being lifted and hugged each time we scored. My little heart was broken as another Sunderland lad, Micky Gray, missed the crucial penalty for us. Clive bloody Mendonca... I hope he gets permanently put on nightshifts at Nissan. Yes, we coasted to promotion the year after, but I defy anyone to watch that final back and not still be gutted.
If 1998 was heartbreak, 2003 was comical.
Tony Blair was still Prime Minister, but not quite as popular. Pop Idol and I’m a Celebrity were fresh on our screens. We were now playing Charlton in the Premier League.
Howard Wilkinson was managing - I use that term loosely - the team as the Peter Reid era had gone south quite quickly. Steve Cotterill the footballing scribe by his side, we were sleepwalking towards a relegation. The team as individuals didn’t look too bad. Phillips, Gray, Gavin McCann, Tommy Sorensen... yeah we weren’t expecting Europe but surely we could manage a bit better than a record-low points tally of 19?
The rot had set in and this was shown in full glory in early February. A 3-1 defeat didn’t tell the whole story as who can forget that all three Charlton goals were scored by us. Not only that, all of them were completely avoidable. Three own goals in seven minutes. Only Sunderland could do that. Thankfully, I didn’t go to the game or even watch it. I think I would have needed some kind of therapy.
The first was a lazy leg from Stephen Wright following a failed clearance, the second a miss-kick by Michael Proctor after a save by Jurgen Macho, and the third was a combination of Kevin Kilbane and Proctor again from a floated corner. Wilkinson was seen giving a half-hearted telling-off to his team, reminiscent of something from Dads Army.
They are there on Youtube should you fancy a giggle/shudder/wince. It’s comical to look back on now, funny almost, but at the time it was the second in the instalment of Charlton pain.
The latest was much more recent but was probably difficult to stomach.
In 2019 the Jack Ross era was starting to have a wobble. What looked like a certain automatic promotion had tailed off and we again faced the Play Offs. We’d already lost to Portsmouth at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy but we gained revenge by battling our way past them to reach the the Final and play under the famous Arch.
It would have to be Charlton again. The talk was of 1998 beforehand, of Mendonca and Gray and all the rest of it. We danced round Trafalgar Square, sang and drunk London dry. The excitement was building, but we all dreaded another defeat.
I rarely get nervous before games, but I was before that Sunday in May a couple of years ago. The Play-Off Final is unlike any other. Almost 50 games, blood, sweat, tears and everything else all boils down to one match. You win and you feel like you’re on top of the world. You lose and it’s like the end of the world.
Unlike in 1998, we got off to a cracking start. Naby Sarr’s quick backpass catching the keeper Dillon Phillips unaware. Five minutes in and a goal up. Was this the Wembley curse broken? Well, the answer was a huge emphatic no.
Charlton equalised before half-time and we looked dead on our feet in the second half. We looked like we were taking it to extra-time before it happened. Virtually the last kick of the game, the ball drops in the box, and their big defender Bauer stabs home.
We couldn’t have made it any more painful. A last-minute goal to lose the Play Off Final, in front of thousands to kiss goodbye our promotion hopes. I didn’t personally cry, but I wouldn’t hold it against anybody that did.
I’d like to try and end it on a positive note. Lets not forget, the last time we faced Charlton at the SOL we actually won. Whilst it seems like a lifetime ago, it was Jack Ross’ first game in the job, and Lynden Gooch powered home that header deep into injury time to give us three points in front of the Sky cameras.
Hopefully we’ve suffered enough against Charlton, and we get that win on Saturday.