25 May 1998 was the longest day of my life to that point.
As a 16-year-old, I - along with with my best mate, my dad, and my little sister - travelled down to Wembley at dawn on a supporters’ coach from Park Lane full of hope, and arrived back at midnight, exhausted, tearful, and full of disappointment.
24 years after the event, for the very first time, I’m going to watch the highlights of Sunderland’s infamous defeat to Charlton Athletic in the greatest playoff final ever played.
That whole spring feels like it’s etched indelibly into my brain, but I’ve actively avoided seeing the action back ever since. I’ve read books about it, I’ve heard ex-players interviewed about it on Roker Rapport and elsewhere, and been at talk-ins where Bally and Quinny have described it in detail. But it has genuinely been too painful for me to watch back. Indeed, it cast a long shadow over my fandom that I’ve only escaped in the last few days.
The semi-final against Sheffield United was the game that our new house became our true home, the barmy night camped out on the street outside the Stadium queuing for tickets for the final (and revising for GCSEs) was a coming of age moment where I took responsibility for getting all of us to the game.
Perhaps it's because the sense of optimism and togetherness we felt as a community was so profound at that particular point in history - Sunderland AFC, our fanbase, our region - putting decades of hurt and decline behind us and riding a red wave towards a brighter future, that the impact of falling at the final hurdle has lasted so long.
Stood amongst the mass ranks behind the goal at the eastern end of the old Wembley that Sunderland attacked in the first half, we raked our calves against the aging backless plastic seating and lived every pulsating moment of the match.
We watched on as the scoreline ebbed and flowed, how we were so near yet so far from achieving a promotion we felt we richly deserved. We hugged strangers, we cried on each other’s shoulders, and, after it was done, we filed out of the decrepit old shell of a ground shocked and saddened. We didn’t know then that this was only the prelude to the halcyon days to come over the following three years or so.
Now as I’m still basking in the afterglow of our victory over Wycombe, now that playoff hoodoo is well and truly broken, now we’re all assured that it’s not our personal or family presence at the national stadium that is cursed, I’ve decided that it’s time to put that particular game to bed once and for all.
So... the 1998 Nationwide League Division One Play-Off Final, here goes nothing...
....Oh, wow, so it was as good a game as everyone remembers it!
Watching that, it all comes flowing back to me. The first thing to say is that eight quality goals were scored that day. These were two sides on absolutely top form, full of confidence and belief, well-drilled, and managed by two fantastic coaches in Alan Curbishley and Peter Reid.
For the neutral, this must have been a treat to truly savour, the perfect way to round off the domestic season ahead of the World Cup in France. A football moment that stands tall alongside the greats of the cultural mix of that year - The Royale Family, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Perfect Day, Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Fat Boy Slim, Lauren Hill’s Miseducation, Robbie Williams’ Millenium, Vindalooo, Madonna, and the Spice Girls.
Clive Mendonca deserves so much credit for that hattrick because all three were absolutely tremendous finishes - the mark of a natural goalscorer with bags of talent. Yet I cannot start putting myself in his shoes - knowing that every time the ball hit the net he’d pushed his beloved Sunderland one step further from the Premiership must have been a really strange sensation.
Listening to him talk about it you can tell that his professional pride in a job well done was tinged with a sadness that this is what he will be remembered for on Wearside - the Mackem lad made good who just happened to play the game of his life against his boyhood club. Nobody can or should begrudge him the honour of his achievement - he was immense that day, almost unplayable.
As for Sunderland, watching Summerbee, Quinn, and Phillips in their prime once again is a joy. Their goals were all superbly taken, the ball struck clean as a whistle after some great football. Questions remain. Should Phillips have been taken off after Quinn put us back in the lead on 73 minutes? Should Danny Dichio have stepped up to take our seventh spot-kick? What was Lionel Perez doing when Richard Rufus headed in from a corner to equalise on 85 minutes?
That the scoreline went 0-1, 2-1, 2-2, 3-2, 3-3 - extra time - 4-3, 4-4, and that twelve successive penalties bar were converted, is testament to the fact that this was indeed a classic. Undoubtedly that was the greatest playoff final ever, perhaps one of the best, most dramatic, most narratively perfect games of football ever played on the hallowed turf of the home of English football.
And then up stepped Michael Gray...
We know now that afterward in the dressing room a pact was struck between the players that the next time around would be different. We know now that, in the long term, the squad benefitted from one more year of development before we attacked the top flight. We know now that we would indeed fly without wings on the back of Reidy’s kings.
That knowledge - and the joy we felt last Saturday - makes it worthwhile revisiting, a morning well spent for this writer. These were vitally important three hours in our club’s history during which a page in football folk law was forged. It was a day that proves that the seeds of glory can be sown in the ashes of defeat. It is a day we really should celebrate having been played our part in and having witnessed first hand. I may well watch it again now.