Wednesday, 22 May 2019

One Sunny Day at Wembley: The Joy and Despair of the Football League's Greatest Play-Off Final

On Sunday Charlton Athletic face Sunderland in the League One play-off final. This is not the first time the pair have faced each other in a Wembley play-off final, in 1998 the two clubs faced off in what was one of the most memorable play-off finals of all time, and match well worth revisiting.



25 May 1998, it was a beautifully hot bank holiday Monday, and for the supporters of Charlton Athletic and Sunderland who descended on Wembley Stadium in the nation's capital there was an all-time classic in store for them on the football pitch. Although none of them would have known it as they milled around Wembley Way in the hours before kick-off, the 77,739 in attendance were to witness what many still today consider the greatest play-off final of all time. Charlton and Sunderland were to face off in one of the biggest games in football, the Division One play-off final as it was then known saw the two sides from what is now the Championship fighting it out for a place in the richest league in the world, the English Premier League, and boy would it be a cracker.

That 1998 final will be always remembered for the contributions of two men. Clive Mendonca and Michael Gray were two boyhood Sunderland fans who that day played on opposing sides. Mendonca, a centre forward signed from Grimsby Town the previous summer was a Sunderland fan plying his trade in South London, whilst defender Michael Gray who made his debut for the Black Cats in 1992 aged 18, had in recent years became a pivotal figure for his home town club.

Although born in North London, Mendonca had spent almost all of his childhood in Sunderland and used to regularly stand on the terraces at the club's old Roker Park ground as a young lad. Mendonca, however, never actually got to play for his boyhood club, whereas Michael Gray actually made the first 363 of his 534 senior appearances in English football whilst wearing the red and white of Sunderland, including that late May afternoon at Wembley. It has to be said though, that of the two players, Mendonca's contribution to the match was far more useful than that of Gray, who's match was defined by one harrowing moment that would settle the result.

Sunderland finished the 1997-98 season in third place four points behind champions Nottingham Forest and one point behind second placed Middlesbrough, whilst Charlton finished two points behind Sunderland in fourth. A 2-0 second leg home victory saw Sunderland beat Sheffield United 3-2 on aggregate in the semi finals to set up the final tie with Charlton who had dispatched of Ipswich Town with two 1-0 victories.

Despite being remembered in the years since as a brilliant game of football, when the match got underway Charlton and Sunderland initially began to play out what seemed to be a rather low key affair compared to what would follow later on. Charlton wore their traditional red whilst Sunderland wore what was not the most pleasant of dark yellow away strips. It was Charlton though who started the better team, however, and despite the slow start, the match did come to life on 23 minutes thanks to that man Mendonca. When Mendonca picked up the ball with his back to goal just inside the Sunderland box he turned wonderfully before driving the ball home to put the Addicks in front, and it wasn't to be his only goal of the game either. Two more were to follow.

Charlton went in at the break one goal up having had the better of the first period but it took just five minutes after the restart for the men from the North East to draw level. Irishman Naill Quinn was to score twice for Sunderland that afternoon and the first of his two goals came in the 50th minute when he successfully headed the ball past keeper Saša Ilić from a Nicky Summerbee header. 

It was another 23 minutes before Quinn got his second and there were a couple more goals in between. Striker Kevin Phillips put Sunderland 2-1 up when a right-footed chip over the keeper saw him become the country's leading goalscorer in professional football that season. Mendonca's second came 13 minutes later, a delightful ball from Keith Jones was followed by two excellent touches from Mendonca before his low drive into the bottom left corner made it 2-2.

There were two minutes between Mendonca's equaliser and Quinn putting Sunderland 3-2 in front. Quinn's second came by chesting the ball down and squeezing it in at the near post after a Lee Clark cross. With Sunderland having retaken the lead on 73 minutes, 17 minutes plus stoppages stood between themselves and a place in the Premier League, but Charlton had other ideas, and although they had to wait another 12 minutes, the equaliser did eventually come. A John Robinson corner saw a towering header from Richard Rufus find the net with Sunderland's French keeper Lionel Perez stranded. For Rufus, it was his first ever goal in Charlton shirt and one that would send the game into extra-time where more drama was to follow.

Inside the stadium they could feel the tension, it had been a nervewracking 90 minutes for the supporters and now they had to sit through another half an hour and the possibility of a penalty shoot-out after that. It would not have been surprising if there had been a few heart attacks in the crowd, but thankfully none were recorded. Anyway, it was a case of the show must go on and a winner must be found, and that meant there had to be a loser also. With both sides having put in so much effort, enough to no doubt make their fans very proud, the unfair reality was that one of these two teams would not actually be getting promoted to the Premier League for next season.

When a team takes the lead in extra time it's easy to assume they will go on to win the game, and when Nicky Summerbee smashed the ball home to put Sunderland back in front 9 minutes into the first extra period one might assume many thought it was game over and Sunderland were headed for the Premier League. Charlton manager Alan Curbishley was now looking very concerned but in this the most dramatic of games, however, the story was not finished yet, and after Jones hit the ball across the box on 103 minutes, a superb first touch by Mendonca saw him volley the ball into the net to complete his hat-trick, and cap of a fantastic display against the club he supported as a child. Mendonca's goal that would usher in the dreaded penalty shoot-out, and having thought the game was won it was now the turn of Peter Reid in the Sunderland dugout to look worried. 

Two seasons prior Sunderland manager Reid had coached his side to the First Division title and a Premier League place, but the club only lasted one season in the top flight and the prospect of an immediate return rested on a series of penalty kicks. Although possibly the most distressing of ways to settle a match of this nature, no one had ever come up with a better alternative to find a winner when two teams just could not be separated, and so it was, the dreaded spot kicks. 

Whilst the television cameras showed various shots of extremely nervous looking fans, the players prepared for the shoot-out, deciding who would step to try and find the net from the spot. At the tunnel end of the ground in front of the Sunderland supporters, hat-trick man Mendonca went up to take the first penalty and had no trouble dispatching the ball past Perez and into the middle of the net. Another excellent penalty saw Summerbee draw Sunderland level, whilst another brilliant penalty followed and then another... In fact, they were all going in. 

The shoot-out ended up in sudden death with all of the first 13 penalties having been scored before Michael 'Mickey' Gray stood up to take penalty number 14, a penalty that would follow him throughout the rest of his career. In a game defined by two boyhood Sunderland fans, both would actually help consign the club to the Division One for another season. Michael Gray hit his penalty straight at Charlton keeper Ilić who had no trouble making the save to win the shoot-out 7-6 for his side. Ilić, an Australian born Serb, had been playing non league football just a year previously and was now heading for the Premier League.

Whilst the Sunderland players were devastated, captain Kevin Ball looked stunned, and penalty misser Gray was being consoled by manager Reid, Charlton were as you'd expect going wild and had every right to. After a 120 minute 8 goal thriller that ended with a shoot-out, the Addicks were back with the big boys for the first time in almost a decade. Saša Ilić, stood with his arms aloft in celebration, was an iconic moment, but unfortunately for Michael Gray his penalty miss became the most iconic moment of all, and when the game is remembered it's usually for two things, Mendonca's hat-trick, and of course that missed penalty.

Sunderland came back stronger and won the championship the following season with a mammoth 105 points, and in the process getting back into the Premier League where they would last four seasons. Charlton only lasted one season in the top flight, but an immediate return was followed by a seven year spell in the top division. 

After that penalty miss Michael Gray stayed at Sunderland until 2004 and went on to make three appearances for England during that period, but no matter what he did Gray was always, and probably always will be, remembered for that one moment of despair when the dreams of a football mad north east town were shattered in the cruellest of ways. As for Clive Mendonca, he scored another hat-trick in Charlton's first home game in the Premier League the following season, a 5-0 victory over Southampton, but four years later retired, returning to his native North East and going to relative obscurity.

They say history is written by the winners, but sometimes it is the losers that play the most memorable part, and that was certainly true of Michael Gray, the man who brought to an end the most breathtaking of play-offs finals, and arguably the greatest promotion final we've ever seen. Charlton Athletic 4-4 Sunderland, what a game!

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