Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson spent the weekend in London as more than 35,000 Sunderland supporters descended on Wembley for the play-off final. As has been the case on so many occasions, they would leave with disappointment etched on their faces


Red sky at night, Sunderland delight. Standing at the edge of Trafalgar Square on Saturday night, with the smoke from a host of hand-held flares billowing across the sky, there was a sense of history repeating. At that stage, however, it wasn’t clear just how closely the events of the next 24 hours would follow a well-worn script.

Sunderland were back at Wembley, London’s major landmarks were a sea of red-and-white once more. This time, though, it was for real. The Checkatrade Trophy final was great fun, with the enjoyment of a weekend in the capital not really being dampened by Lee Cattermole’s penalty miss. But a play-off final was a completely different matter. This was a season’s work about to be compressed into 90 nerve-jangling minutes.

So while Saturday night’s cavorting was as high-spirited as you would expect with the alcohol flowing freely and the carry-out cans piling high against Nelson’s Column, it was tempered slightly by an edginess that had not been apparent a couple of months earlier.

“Surely it’s our turn this time,” said one father to his two sons. “And if it isn’t, I’m bloody well not coming back.” “You are,” replied his eldest. “You’ve got the kitty.”

By the time that dusk was descending, most people’s kitties were running out. “There’s a pub on the corner over there doing pints for £4,” shouted one young lad to his mates, pointing out an old-school London boozer called The Chandos. “Aye, but they don’t want people in with football shirts on,” said his pal. So they tried to get in topless.

As midnight approached, the crowds dispersed. Time to sober up and get ready. London had been painted red-and-white, but the real business was about to begin.


You used to be able to see the old Wembley from miles away, with the ground’s twin towers dominating the surrounding skyline. When the new Wembley was built, its arch was similarly awe-inspiring, screaming from miles away that the home of football was approaching.

Now, with new office and retail developments having sprung up around the stadium, Wembley is hemmed in. On days like yesterday, though, it continues to exert a powerful hold over all who approach it.

“There’s the arch,” said one mum to her daughter, as the tube rattled past Neasden towards Wembley Park. “It wasn’t there when me and your dad came in 1973.” “Was that the last time Sunderland won?” she was asked. “Last time they won at Wembley,” pitched in the dad. “And they’ve tried plenty of times since.” They were about to witness attempt number seven.

The weight of history hung heavy in the air, with the identity of Sunderland’s opponents not really helping to settle the nerves. “Super, super Clive,” sang a group of Charlton fans loitering at the exit of the tube station. “Super, super Clive. Super, super Clive. Super Clive Mendonca.” “Super, super Kev,” was the immediate response. But we all knew how that had turned out.

Mendonca has been something of a recluse since his heroics in the 1998 play-off final, returning to his native Wearside to work at the Nissan car plant. He wasn’t at Wembley yesterday, but Michael Gray was, in his role as a pundit with TalkSport. “Don’t even go there,” seemed to be his stock response in the press room as kick-off approached.

Sunderland’s fans, filling the same side of the ground they had inhabited for the Checkatrade final, produced a guttural roar as the players walked on to the field. Forget March, forget 1998, forget all those other missed opportunities and all that despair. This was going to be different…


Football stadiums tend to be cacophonous places, especially when there are more than 75,000 people inside. Every so often though, even the most raucous of grounds falls completely silent. Sometimes, it’s the result of a moment of genius. Think Messi at the Nou Camp. Other times, it’s because something momentous is just about to happen. The split second a player runs up to take a penalty perhaps.

Every once in a while, however, silence descends because nobody can quite believe what has just happened. At 3.05pm yesterday, Wembley witnessed one of those moments.

When Naby Sarr rolled the ball back towards his goalkeeper, Dillon Phillips, there was not a single logical way that Charlton could have fallen behind. In play-off meetings between these two sides, though, logic goes out of the window. Phillips erred spectacularly, failing to make any contact as he attempted to control the ball with his left boot, and therefore allowing it to trundle almost apologetically into the left.

For a brief moment, incredulity reigned. Then the enormity of what had just happened dawned, and the pocket of silence was punctured with the force of 35,000 sharp knives. Sunderland’s supporters, baffled and ecstatic in equal measure, exploded. Phillips, forever destined to be known as the Charlton goalkeeper that conceded ‘that goal’ buried his head beneath his top. No matter how hard he tries to hide it, his embarrassment might never disappear.

Sunderland could not have wished for a more opportune start, but a failure to press home an advantage has been the story of their season. Leads have been wasted, inviting positions spurned. Sure enough, rather than kicking on, the Black Cats found themselves pegged back.

Lyle Taylor turned down the opportunity to move to Wearside last summer, so was always likely to play a pivotal role in the final. His pace and movement troubled the Sunderland defence throughout, with his mobility and dynamism standing in marked contrast to the more laboured efforts of Charlie Wyke at the other end.

Having pulled to the right of the box to meet Anfernee Dijksteel’s flick towards the end of the first half, Taylor’s slide-rule cross enabled Ben Purrington to stab home at the back post. Sunderland being Sunderland, this was never going to be an easy afternoon.

Or a stress-free one. As the second half galloped on, so the nerves became more and more frayed. Taylor headed wide at the back post. Relief. Aiden McGeady came off the bench, his foot repaired sufficiently to him be involved. Hope. Jonny Williams, formerly of Sunderland, also came on for Charlton. Fate?

It was excruciating, yet as the game ticked beyond the 90th minute, at least the Black Cats would have a shot at extra-time and potentially penalties. Wouldn’t they?

No. Fatally, Sunderland’s players switched off, enabling Charlton to play a quick free-kick on their left-hand side. Josh Cullen swung over a cross, and Patrick Bauer found himself unmarked at the back post. His first effort was blocked by Tom Flanagan, but his second strike rebounded off the Sunderland centre-half into the goal. Game over.


As the ball spun into the net off Flanagan, so Sunderland’s players became all too aware of their fate. Flanagan sought recriminations, bawling at his team-mates who had allowed the ball to go into the box. Lee Cattermole, ashen faced, slumped to the floor. Will Grigg, at the opposite end of the pitch, shook his head in disbelief.

Sixty-one games of effort, decided in the final 30 seconds of the season. The game kicked back off, but almost as soon as the ball was rolling again, referee Andy Madley was blowing for full-time.

Charlton’s players piled on Bauer in the centre-circle, with Lee Bowyer galloping across the Wembley turf a la David Pleat. Sunderland’s did not seem to know what to do, such was their sense of incredulity.

Jon McLaughlin took off his gloves and applauded the fans behind his goal. Like the players on the pitch, those in the stands were dumbfounded. George Honeyman punched the turf in despair before members of Sunderland’s backroom team patted him on the back. Jack Ross, ever the professional, kept his cool to congratulate Charlton’s celebrating coaching staff. How on earth will he begin to lift his squad after this?

As Charlton’s players lifted their trophy, the Sunderland end of the stadium was a sea of empty seats. Empty seats, and broken dreams. Such is the way of things whenever they visit Wembley.