It’s often said that the best way to win promotion is via the play-offs, but imagine racking up 90 points and 98 goals in a season, then scoring four in the play-off final at Wembley and still not going up. In 1998, that’s exactly what happened to Sunderland.
The expectation of Sunderland is so great today that we can’t even think about losing”.
As Niall Quinn spoke of the pressure in the hours before kick-off, the sun cast its midday glare over a sea of bobbing red and white heads lining Wembley Way. The view was framed by the iconic Twin Towers, acting as the boundary past which dizzying excitement transformed into nervous dread for the 77,000 Charlton and Sunderland fans in attendance.
Decked in the same colours and yearning for the same goal, not one of them would predict the drama that would unfold at the 1998 Division 1 Play-Off Final.
Having lost only two of their last 17 matches, Sunderland were marginal favourites. A season after being relegated from the Premier League despite reaching the false security of 40 points, the Wearsiders were the country’s top scorers with 98 goals. Yet their 90-point haul saw them finish only third.
Sunderland’s form was courtesy of a winning formula that Peter Reid had stumbled on through a mix of desperation and daring after losing three of the first four games of the season. His dynamic formation allowed square pegs to flourish in round holes, thanks to symbiotic partnerships all over the pitch.
There was no better example than up front.
There was the towering Quinn, 6ft 4in, 30-years-old, shirt untucked, shin pads loose, but whose real strengths lay in a deftness of touch and subtly of movement that defenders would underestimate throughout his career.
Then there was his strike partner, Kevin Phillips, dwarfed by Quinn, seven years his junior and the opposite in almost every attribute. Shaven-headed and stocky, wily and watching, primed and ready to pounce. If Quinn was the musket, then Phillips was the bullet.
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Charlton, meanwhile, were unbeaten in 12 games, including two victories over Ipswich in the semi-finals, and had managed nine successive clean sheets, amassing 13 hours without conceding. Another shutout from Sasa Ilic would break a club record that had stood for over 70 years.
And their defensive strength did not come at the expense of firepower. In Mark Bright and Clive Mendonca, boss Alan Curbishley had his own version of agitator and snaffler, the latter having bagged 23 league goals. He also just happened to be born in Sunderland.
It meant the game was not short of sub-plots. Along with Mendonca’s Wearside roots and Ilic being a fingertip from history, Sunderland had a potential record-breaker of their own, with Phillips – the league’s Player of the Year – one goal away from breaking Brian Clough’s post-war record of 34 goals for the season.
Charlton enjoyed the first victory of the weekend. By winning the toss before the match, they were able to choose their home kit. It meant Sunderland would be decked out in their divisive gold away shirt, unpopular with the players due to its double-layering that would provide little relief under a clammy London sky.
It didn’t take long for the sweat patches to appear as nervous players on both sides appeared to wilt under the pressure of playing inside a Wembley Stadium that had been turned into a red cauldron, the ear-bursting din resulting in heavy touches, misplaced passes and aimless punts.
Ilic showed his anxiety by attempting to dribble past Phillips in the area, in turn nearly throwing away his chance of the club record after just 14 minutes.
And it was the Londoners who inflicted the first wound. Booed from the first whistle by fans he once shared a terrace with, it would be Mendonca who opened the scoring on 23 minutes.
Bright flicked on a long throw-in before providing a decoy run. It allowed his strike partner to dummy a pass, sending Jody Craddock and Darren Williams off to mark the wrong striker. Instead of passing, Mendonca turned inside. The rest was a formality.
Charlton were buoyed by the opener, quick on the break and coming close to a second when Mickey Gray did just enough to prevent Bright heading in. Conversely, Sunderland’s wingers cut frustrated figures, kept in check by Charlton full-backs Mark Bowen and Danny Mills.
Unlike Bright, Quinn was winning few high balls and winning fewer favours from a referee happy to stop the play for minor infractions. And while Mendonca’s approach play, lay-offs and off-the-ball running had proven as classy as his goal, Phillips had barely touched the ball.
At half-time, Reid was worried: “We haven’t passed the ball, we’ve gone too long to big Niall, we’ve just got to get the ball down and pass it. My daughter could pass better than we have today. We haven’t done ourselves justice.”
As the second half began, the Sunderland fans attempted to rally their team with a rousing chant of “Cheer Up Peter Reid”. It took just five minutes for their beloved manager to do as he was told.
Kicking towards their legion of fans, Sunderland upped the tempo and forced a corner. From Nicky Summerbee’s clipped front-post delivery, Quinn lost his marker with a dash from the penalty spot before stooping to thunder a header powerful enough to beat Ilic for the first time in nearly 14 hours.
Sunderland’s No.9 number nine ran off in celebration, arms whirling like a golden Catherine wheel.
The fireworks show had only just begun, set to continue for 100 more breathless minutes. A loose clearance cannoned out of the Charlton box into midfield and Kevin Ball’s headed interception broke to Phillips who, with almost his first meaningful contribution of the game, needed only one touch to steer the ball past on onrushing Ilic.
It was Sunderland’s 100th goal of the season, 51 of which had been contributed by their prolific little-and-large double act. In 18 frantic second-half minutes, Phillips had etched his name in Sunderland’s record books, while Ilic thought his chances of becoming a Charlton legend had gone.
Moments after the restart, Mendonca found himself through on goal, only for the offside flag to halt his progress. Such was the deafening noise inside Wembley that the striker had initially failed to hear the whistle. But 10 minutes later there’d be no flag or whistle, only an equaliser.
Capitalising on a curling pass in behind from Keith Jones, Mendonca’s heavy first touch took the ball past Craddock, before a stab of the studs brought the ball back into his feet, leaving him with another controlled side-foot finish past Lionel Perez. Parity was restored – but not for long.
Two minutes later, neat interplay by Summerbee and Lee Clark – both now enjoying the game’s new openness – resulted in a weighted delivery into the back post, where Quinn lurked. As the ball hung in the air, 40,000 Sunderland fans knew exactly what was coming.
The Irishman feinted as if going for a header, prompted Mills to jump too early, before allowing the ball to land on his chest and drop towards a left foot that was winding up the half-volley.
Sunderland fans felt the net bulge before they saw it. Charlton fans, many still cheering the equaliser, were bereft.
Quinn was mobbed by his team-mates, while those who’d travelled from the north-east found themselves in seats they hadn’t started the day anywhere near, in the arms of people they’d never before spoken to. Such was the melee that ensued that many missed Phillips, struggling with cramp, being replaced by Danny Dichio.
The first time most realised the Italian striker was on the pitch was when he found himself on the receiving end of a Summerbee cross that seemed destined for the back of the net. Instead, Dichio opted to volley a ball that was better suited for a header, and the substitute had fluffed his chance to send Sunderland into the Premier League.
It allowed further sub-plots take centre stage. First Perez, the eccentric stopper resembling a Bros tribute act with his rolled-up sleeves and peroxide mop, prompted the adulation of one half of Wembley when he reacted superbly to deny Bright from point blank range.
The Frenchman’s contract was up in the summer, and it was a save that would surely have earned a renewal, had he not become the hero for the other half of Wembley with just five minutes to go.
Coming for a deep corner he was never likely to get near, Perez left his goal at the mercy of whoever’s head the ball landed on. That man proved to be Richard Rufus, Charlton’s defensive rock with 164 games to his name and not a single goal, until now.
Both sides continued their gung-ho approach into extra-time, but physically the players were beginning to toil. A 35-year-old Bright saw his seventh and final appearance at Wembley come to an end, with Steve Brown on to provide fresh brawn alongside Mendonca.
The mental toll began to show in the stands, too. Even when Sunderland regained the lead through a slick passing move that saw Summerbee fire home to make it 4-3, the celebrations were short and swiftly followed by an anxious hush.
Surely Charlton couldn’t equalise again? Despite some Mackems’ wishful thinking, the Golden Goal rule – adopted two years prior at this ground during the Euro 96 final and set to make its World Cup debut in France that summer – would not be coming to Sunderland’s rescue.
Clark became the latest player to succumb to cramp, as Alex Rae entered the fray. But the tenacious Scot had been on only three minutes before Mendonca once again drew the game level and completed his hat-trick.
Superbly controlling a bullet of a cross from Brown, in the same movement Mendonca swivelled and fired the ball home from six yards.
Sapped of energy, the game petered out to a succession of tired set pieces before the referee blew the final whistle. After 46 games, 120 minutes and eight goals, a place in the Premier League would be decided on penalties, like two heavyweight boxers slugging it out for 12 rounds only to be asked to draw straws at the final bell.
The penalties would be taken at the Sunderland end, meaning Mendonca could continue his role as panto villain with his fourth celebration of the day after blasting home the first spot-kick.
Somewhat predictably for two teams proving reluctant to crown a winner, all 10 penalties were scored. A gurning and bouncing Ilic came close to saving Chris Makin’s well-struck effort, while a hunched and timid Perez failed to impose himself on his line.
Sudden death arrived, and with the managers now back at their dugouts, it was left to the players to volunteer from the centre circle.
With regular takers Clark and Phillips both off the pitch, and Shaun Newton converting Charlton’s seventh penalty, Sunderland were forced to look to unfamiliar territory.
Michael Gray glanced hopefully at Dichio, sat on the grass with his boots off, but reluctantly decided that it was his turn.
His anxious walk to the ball betrayed his unease, and as the first left-footer of the whole shootout, his rushed run-up looked unnatural. His underhit kick was easily saved by Ilic, who would make it in Charlton’s history books after all.
As the keeper bounced around like a luminous jack in the box, chased by his frenzied team-mates, Reid headed straight for Gray. The Sunderland fans consoled him in the only way they could, by chanting his name. Few of them did so with dry eyes.
On TV, man-of-the-match Mendonca apologised to his friends and family but wisely opted not to reveal when he was next due back home. It would be a long time before he could enjoy another drink in his hometown.
By the time Sunderland fans had trudged back to their coaches, ready for a sombre journey home, Quinn’s defiant post-match comments were filtering through on the radio.
“First of all, I’m very pleased for Charlton. They’ve done great all season. But we know we’re the best team in this division and we’re going to bounce up next year.
“We can go one of two ways now, we can either feel sorry for ourselves like we did at the start last year, or we can start from day one. And if we start from day one next season we’ll be back with the big boys.”
Exactly a year later, a red and white bouquet of flowers arrived at the Stadium of Light. They’d been sent from south east London, accompanied by a note:
“Dear Sunderland AFC.
Congratulations on promotion to the Premier League.
Good luck next season.
Charlton Athletic FC.”
By Alexis James – @AlexisJamesUK