SO much for a Wembley hoodoo then. The team that couldn’t win at the national stadium have now triumphed twice in successive seasons. And this time, unlike 14 months earlier, there were around 50,000 Wearsiders present to join in the fun.

From Trafalgar Square to Wembley Way, and taking in every pub, beer garden and street corner along the way, London was painted red-and-white for two days in a row as Sunderland’s travelling army screamed, sang and celebrated. Elderly fans who had waited almost 50 years for this moment, witnessing a succession of Wembley defeats and play-off disappointments, were left in tears. Youngsters, carried aloft on the shoulders of their parents, will have gained memories that will last a lifetime. Sunderland – Wembley winners. It has a nice ring.

The scenes throughout the weekend were remarkable, but the 20 minutes or so after the final whistle blew on Saturday afternoon were especially unforgettable. Alex Neil looked to the heavens with his arms aloft before embracing those around him. Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, watching on from the directors’ box, beamed from behind his shades. Luke O’Nien, a survivor from the play-off final defeat in 2019, didn’t quite know what to do, but eventually opted for hurtling towards the Sunderland fans punching the air manically.

Emotions ran wild, even if for a minute or two, it appeared as though the red-and-white contingent could not believe what was happening. Sunderland supporters had grown accustomed to rushing from Wembley with a feeling of bitter disappointment coursing through them. Remaining in their seats to watch a trophy being lifted was a novel twist.

By the time Corry Evans hoisted the play-off final silverware above his head, they had just about regained their composure, and the next half-hour flew by in a frenzied blur. The players posed on the pitch for pictures; a million selfies and videos were captured in the stands.

The Northern Echo:

Reality will bite in the next few weeks, as the challenges of preparing for a return to the Championship become clear. After four years in League One, Sunderland have lost a lot of ground on the clubs they will be attempting to topple next season. For now, though, triumphing in the play-offs at the seventh time of asking is more than good enough. For once, it was the perfect finale to an unforgettable weekend.

That weekend started on Friday, with the exodus from the North-East already well under way by lunchtime. The trains heading into London were packed, hence the weird and wonderful alternatives Sunderland supporters came up with in order to make it to the capital.

Flying in via Menorca, as Sunderland supporter James Jelly did, was certainly different, but it wasn’t the only bizarre route that had been concocted. Planes, trains and automobiles had been commandeered, along with a procession of coaches that clogged up both the A1 and M1 for most of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. If it’s Sunderland at Wembley, you can bet that thousands of fans are going to do anything and everything to get there.

Saturday’s game was the Black Cats’ fourth visit to the national stadium in four seasons, and the rituals that have developed over that time have become as much a part of the Wembley experience as the match itself.

If it’s Friday afternoon, then it’s Covent Garden, and as the sun broke through the clouds, so the crowds outside the Nag’s Head swelled in size and the chants and songs began to sweep through the surrounding streets.

It was exuberant and good-natured, and while the groups of passing tourists that paused to wave around their camera phones might have been perplexed, Sunderland’s fans revelled in the opportunity to celebrate their club, their city and their red-and-white communal identity.

Flags fluttered and banners were unfurled, including one from the Czech Republic Sunderland Supporters’ Branch held by Robin Bond, once of Durham, but now based in Prague, where he preaches the Wearside gospel to a newly-converted Czech congregation. His branch boasts around 400 members, and as the head, missing out on Wembley was never going to be an option. “I’ve been seven times before and never seen us win, so it’s got to be a case of eighth time lucky,” he said. “Although if it isn’t, I’ll no doubt be saying exactly the same about number nine.”

As the night progressed, so the focus of attention switched from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square. Fans clambered up Nelson’s Column and dived headfirst into the pools and fountains, with the imposing façade of the National Gallery providing a fittingly monumental backdrop. As red flares lit up the night sky, so one of London’s most famous landmarks was transformed into an outpost of the North-East. Who needs Penshaw Monument when you can commandeer Nelson’s Column whenever you need it?

The Northern Echo:

“I wasn’t meant to be bringing the kids out of school,” said one father of two young boys from Coundon, who will have to remain anonymous for reasons that are about to become obvious. “But I tried to convince the teacher it was part of a history lesson. I’ve told them a bit about the Battle of Trafalgar – and tomorrow they’re going to see Sunderland make history.” If nothing else, you had to admire his optimism.

Other Sunderland supporters were more nervous, mindful no doubt of their club’s dreadful Wembley record, which was only partly ameliorated by last season’s Papa John’s Trophy success, a victory that lost much of its lustre by dint of taking place behind-closed-doors.

There was one omen to cling to ahead of kick-off though – in each of their three previous Wembley victories (1937, 1973, 2021), Sunderland had been allocated the stadium’s West End. On every occasion when they had lost, their fans had been housed in the East. Saturday was going to be a West End day. Surely, that had to mean something?

Well, come Saturday afternoon, Wembley Way was a heady mix of nervous energy, excitement and carrier bags full of cans. Sunderland’s fanzone in front of Wembley Arena was heaving three hours before kick-off. Wycombe’s, tucked away behind the stadium, was pretty much deserted. In the red-versus-blue battle, the numerical superiority of the contingent from the North-East was immediately apparent.

It was also emphasised by the songs that echoed around the national stadium in the minutes before kick-off. “Wise men say, only fools rush in.” Elvis had left the building – and turned up at Wembley instead. The whole of one half of the stands was decked out in Sunderland strips, with the Wearside following snaking around the top tier to completely overwhelm the Wycombe support with their blue balloons.

The Northern Echo:

The question was whether the numerical disparity would have any impact on what would play out on the pitch. The answer arrived from the moment the game kicked off. Roared on by their red-and-white support, Sunderland’s players tore into their opponents from the outset, displaying a swagger and zeal that Wycombe were unable to contain.

Four minutes in, and half the Black Cats fans were celebrating as Alex Pritchard’s free-kick looked like it had gone in, only for the ball to have flown into the side netting. Eight minutes later, however, and they were able explode in ecstasy for real.

Elliot Embleton had been restored to the team ahead of Jack Clarke to add some creativity and guile, but it was his athleticism that enabled him to burst from the halfway line as Wycombe’s defenders backed off. His shot swerved one way then the other, bamboozling David Stockdale, who could only help the ball into the net. Cue complete pandemonium as two-thirds of Wembley erupted.

It would be the 79th minute before Ross Stewart struck again to make things safe, driving home from just outside the area, but while Wycombe’s players did all they could to get back into the game, this was not an occasion when Sunderland were battening down the hatches.

Instead, when the final whistle blew, it was a case of a job well done. Sunderland had won, promotion had been achieved, dreams had finally been realised. The nerves had proved unfounded. It was time for the next stage of the party to begin.