It was 1998 - 23 years ago to the day - Middlesbrough had already been defeated in the League Cup final, Arsenal had dismantled the mags in the FA Cup final nine days earlier, Tow Law had lost the FA Vase final, and now it was our turn in what is frequently referred to as the richest game in football.
It was the inaugural season of our tenure at the Stadium of Light, and what a season it had been. On the back of being relegated in our first season in the Premier League and our final season at Roker Park, it was a job to pick the club back up again and it wasn’t a quick process.
Peter Reid had added to the squad in the summer with Lee Clark, Kevin Phillips, Chris Makin, Jody Craddock, Chris Byrne and Edwin Zoetebier boosting the ranks, but as we started the season we were struggling to shake off the hangover from the previous season.
Defeat at Bramall Lane on the opening day of the season led to a run of five defeats in the opening ten league games that left us 12th in the Nationwide Football League Division One and we were struggling to hit our stride.
This poor run was slowed in its tracks when, with a new-look defence that included Darren Holloway, Darren Williams and Jody Craddock we drew four of the next six and won the other two, but then two things happened in quick succession that seemed to turn the tide.
First, on November 8th, against Nottingham Forest at the Stadium of Light, we witnessed the return of Niall Quinn as a late substitute during a 1-1 draw, and then a week later, Nicky Summerbee made his debut for the club.
He’d signed from Manchester City in a part-exchange with Craig Russell and scored our fourth goal in a 4-1 at Fratton Park after replacing an injured Martin Smith at half-time.
With Johnston being moved out to the left in front of the ever-improving Michael Gray, to accommodate Summerbee on the right, we now had the ammunition to supply Niall Quinn with which to either score, or more likely to set up Kevin Phillips for an opportunity.
This setup would mean we suffered only 3 defeats in the next 29 Division One fixtures until the end of the season, and if it weren’t for two draws over the Easter weekend against Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion and a defeat at Ipswich in our penultimate game we’d have surely been promoted automatically.
As it was, we finished 3rd behind Dave Bassett’s Nottingham Forest, who won the title, and Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough on 90 points, two points ahead of Charlton Athletic who finished 4th.
After we had successfully negotiated our semi-final with Sheffield United with an unforgettable second leg, Charlton swept aside Ipswich Town to set up our date at Wembley.
Our line-up picked itself, and in our second appearance in a play-off final at Wembley since they began in 1990, we kicked off on this day 23-years-ago.
The first half saw two good sides squaring each other up and the referee was intent on ruining it with needless early yellow cards, and with the first clear-cut chance of the game, Charlton took the lead.
Mark Bright flicked on a long throw to Clive Mendonca and with Jody Craddock trying to second guess whether the Sunderland-born striker was going to give it back to his strike partner, he flicked it past the Sunderland defender to be one-on-one with Perez and slot it home.
We were fairly subdued for the rest of the first half, and went in a goal down. During the break, Darren Holloway, who was booked after just 10 minutes and was suffering with a back problem, was replaced by Chris Makin. Otherwise, the biggest change was the fact that Reid had clearly put a rocket up them at half time.
From the off in the second half we were first to the ball and looked like the side we had seen go on that amazing run and amass 90 points over the course of the season.
Five minutes after the break we force a corner which Nicky Summerbee drove in from our right-hand side in front of the Sunderland fans, to meet Niall Quinn’s run at the near post perfectly who squeezed it into the near post to level.
Eight minutes later, we took the lead for the first time in the game. Kevin Ball won a header in the middle of the Charlton half with such force it looped over the Charlton back four to find Kevin Philips in behind who got to the ball ahead of the keeper and with a deft flick broke Brian Clough’s post-war record with his 35th of the season.
Alan Curbishley’s side were no pushovers, however, and on 71 minutes, were level again. A ball over the top of Williams by Keith Jones, saw that man Mendonca run onto it - he took two touches and slid it past Perez.
But two minutes later, after Phillips was wiped out by Eddie Youds as he went up for a header, the ball eventually got to Summerbee in the middle of the Charlton half, who laid it to the right to find Clark. Our then record signing, cut inside on his left foot and crossed to back post where Quinn brought it down on his chest and volleyed it into near post.
In the celebration and euphoria of going ahead once again, you would have been forgiven for failing to notice a potentially game-changing moment. After Phillips was left in a heap after the challenge from Youds, it was deemed that our top scorer couldn’t continue and was replaced by Danny Dichio before the game restarted.
Two minutes later the substitute had a glorious chance to make it 4-2 with only 15 minutes on the clock. A Makin throw down the line to Quinn who sent it down line to free Summerbee down the right in acres of space.
Dichio was free in the area the ex-Swindon Town man found him perfectly, only to see the substitute miss it with his right foot that he swung at it, so it hit off his standing left leg and tamely fell straight into arms of Ilic from around ten yards out. It should have been the goal to send us to the Premier League.
Charlton then began to build momentum and the pressure was building on us by the minute. With 7 minutes remaining, Perez made an instinctive stop from a free-kick before calamity two minutes later.
An out-swinging corner saw Perez charge needlessly into a crowd of players underneath the ball. Richard Rufus rose tallest at the back of the crowd as Perez disappeared into it and the Charlton defender nodded into an empty net. The final five nervy minutes played out until the final whistle, 3-3, extra-time.
As extra-time kicked off there was only one team who looked like scoring, and it was the team in sweat-drenched gold. Nine minutes into the first period of extra-time, a nice move starting with Micky Gray playing it into Niall Quinn’s feet was laid off to Summerbee who stretched to get it into a position to shoot and smashed it into the bottom corner. 4-3.
We were screaming at Charlton that this would be our day.
In the aftermath of the goal, Alex Rae replaced Lee Clark who had covered every blade of grass. He was magnificent in the middle of the park for Sunderland that day and after going down with cramp on a couple of occasions he was eventually replaced.
Four minutes later Charlton got the ball wide and as the ball was initially smashed across the box it looked innocuous until Mendonca took a ridiculous first touch six-yards out in between Chris Makin and Darren Williams. His second touch was just as good as the first teed him up to pivot and put beyond Perez in a flash. 4-4.
Neither team wanted to give in. The rest of extra-time was like two heavyweight boxers slugging at each other without really making contact. Tired, exhausted, desperately claiming every decision, and that was just in the stands.
Penalties. It was cruel. After a game like that penalties just felt wrong. But it was a necessity. It was at the Sunderland end and Charlton were to go first.
It was then many of us realised that we were without Kevin Phillips and Lee Clark who would have no doubt been in the pecking order.
Many couldn’t look. I remember a few fellas turned around in the row in front of me, which bizarrely made me feel like I couldn’t. I stared at the floor.
Mendonca stepped up first and predictably tucked it away - top corner. Summerbee, who had probably thought he’d scored the winner only 20 minutes prior, scored our first - top corner.
They were followed by Brown, and then Johnston. 2-2 on pens.
Jones, Ball and Kinsella, all finished theirs without either keeper getting close. 4-3 to Charlton, and then Chris Makin causes all hearts to stop beating in the Sunderland end when he virtually hits it straight at Ilic who palmed it backward over the line. We were too tired and nervous to cheer that it went in.
Mark Bowen, Alex Rae, John Robinson and Niall Quinn all did the business. 6-6. When would this end?
Shaun Newton made the walk for Charlton’s seventh penalty, and proceeded to dispatch it right in the top corner. Perez didn’t get close, in fact he didn’t get a sniff of any.
And up steps Micky Gray. We were all gutted for him. We saw how nervous he was walking up, but he walked up, unlike others, who hid. What a moment. What a game. It shouldn’t have come to that.
The following season Micky Gray came back with bleach blonde hair and forced his way into the England squad as we got 105 points and won the title. Then we had two fantastic years in the Premier League, and it was incredible.
But we still should have won it and I still don’t like thinking about it.
Sunderland: Perez, Holloway (Makin), Craddock, Williams, Gray, Summerbee, Ball, Clark (Rae), Johnston, Quinn, Phillips (Dichio)
Charlton Athletic: Ilic, Mills (Robinson), Rufus, Youds, Bowen, Newton, K. Jones, Kinsella, Heaney (S. Jones), Bright (Brown), Mendonca