JUST THE TICKET
“I’m an eternal pessimist whenever it comes to watching Sunderland play on the (admittedly rare) big occasion. The 1998 play-off final with Charlton was different, though.
With every pre-match pint and splash around the Trafalgar Square fountains, the confidence grew – it was our time.
I had ignored all of the warning signs: we were the favourites with the bookies, wearing our away strip – a horrendous sweat patch-accentuating gold effort – and upfront for the Addicks was the Wearside-born striker Clive Mendonca.
As the scoreline swayed one way then the other, we lost Kevin Phillips to injury. Danny Dichio missed a chance. Lionel Perez went walkabout. Still I remained convinced of victory. And when Nicky Summerbee put us 4-3 ahead in extra time, one of my mates thought that it was a golden goal and went crazy. Oh how I laughed.
Then Mendonca levelled for his hat-trick. It was going to penalties.
As Michael Gray was shuffling sheepishly towards the penalty spot at 7-6 to Charlton in the shootout, I immediately started to sober up. This team’s made me miserable for so many years. Why did I think it would be any different today?
After several silent pints in the pub, we trudged back towards the Underground, walking past the scene of the crime just as the Charlton players were getting on board their team bus.
I shouted incoherent, drunken abuse at both Mendonca and Alan Curbishley, which was by far the most mature and sensible approach. I bet that really took the edge off their celebrations later on.
‘At least you got to witness a play-off final classic,’ I have been told. I had the consolation of seeing one of Wembley’s greatest games. Those words still irritate.
Never again would I go to a big match thinking it was there for the taking. Well, apart from the 2004 FA Cup semi-final with Millwall. That was a given. Oh, s**t.”