Over 40,000 Sunderland fans head to Wembley this weekend to follow their team in the final of the EFL Checkatrade Trophy against Portsmouth on Sunday.
But for some of their older fans, Wembley — albeit the original twin towers version — will be remembered for the biggest heartbreak of their Sunderland supporting days.
The First Division (as it was then) play-off final between Charlton Athletic and Sunderland is widely considered the best there has been since the format was introduced.
A moment in time – Sunderland, 1998
It finished 4-4 after extra time, with Charlton winning 7-6 on penalties.
Drama, excitement, fairytale storylines, it had it all.
In a truly spectacular game that ebbed and flowed, one way then the other, it was everything that makes people call football the beautiful game.
Clive Mendonca was brought up in Sunderland. He had red and white blood in his veins. It was ironic, therefore, that he lined up for Charlton against his childhood heroes, aiming to leave their legion of fans in tatters.
Michael Gray, on the other hand, was living the dream Mendonca probably envisaged as a boy. He too was Sunderland born and bred, but he was playing for the club he supported all his life.
It was the background to a story that could have been written by Enid Blyton.
Mendonca would go on to be the hero of the tale, while Gray would become the villain.
In a first half that had only one goal — scored inevitably by Mendonca — little did anyone expect what was to come after the interval.
Just 13 minutes into the second half, the Wearsiders had flipped the game on its head, turning a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 lead, through their dynamic duo — Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips.
Mendonca, though, scored again, to level, but a mere two minutes later, Quinn restored Sunderland’s lead.
They looked to have promotion won, until Richard Rufus levelled at 3-3 with just five minutes remaining.
Extra time saw plenty of action too, with Nicky Summerbee putting Sunderland ahead again, but it was Mendonca who would socre his hat-trick goal to take the game to penalties.
It was as though it had been written in the stars — a Sunderland lad becomes the nemesis against the team he had followed growing up.
It went to penalties, and of course, Mendonca got Charlton off to a flyer, scoring the first spot-kick. 12 more were taken, and twelve more were scored — Charlton leading the shoot-out 7-6.
And so the page turned to Michael Gray, the other Sunderland fanatic.
Like all good novels, the story demanded a twist in the tale, and it was Gray who obliged.
He took a long run-up, struck it to the keeper’s left, but it was a weak, tame effort that Saša Ilić saved with ease, and Charlton were in the Premier League.
Gray — distraught; Mendonca — ecstatic.
A day that sticks in the throats of many a Sunderland fan. But for the neutrals, it was one of the great games. And a play-off final like no other, and one the like of, we will probably never witness again.
Were you at that game? Did you suffer the heartbreak inflicted by one of your own? Let us know your memories…
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