We went to Wembley Stadium, the thirty first of March
Sang around Trafalgar Square, and underneath the arch……
and lost the game. It was one which will probably go down as a great match, what with its stonking free-kick, late equaliser, extra time, penalties, and a noisy full house, but we should really have been out of sight by half time before we basically invited Pompey to score. Planned substitutions were scuppered by injuries, and things just didn’t pan out as we wanted. It might well have been the weekend that we showed the football world that the fans and club are back together, but a bit of silverware wouldn’t have gone amiss.
It was a funny old two weeks leading up to the game, what with the international break meaning no game for us, and all our players returning uninjured – because they didn’t play. Fifteen whole days without football, and two of them Saturdays was just weird at this time of year, but we spent them fighting off, then succumbing to, Cup Fever. Tickets arrived by whatever path, convoluted or otherwise, and then the Red and White Army was mobilised. Forward detachments headed south from Thursday onwards, with those of us still at home finding our restlessness increase as social media filled with photos of the capital turning red and white and the shenanigans in Trafalgar Square. Even old-timers like myself, with several Wembley appearances on our CVs, became more nervous as the time passed – I honestly can’t remember similar feelings preceding our last visit, but they must have been there.
Having discovered the lovingly hand-crafted car decoration from our 1998 visit, it took pride of place in our Ian’s rear side window. He and his brother had made it 21 years ago, so it was only fitting that he should display it this time around. What with some idiot deciding that moving the clocks forward on Cup Final day, it was a case of setting multiple alarm clocks and pleading with folks to ring each other early on – just in case. Sleep didn’t come easily on the eve of the game, as the Sunderland family geared itself up for enjoying itself. After the horror of the last two seasons, which it turn had followed several seasons of misery, we were up for a good time – thousands of us, and I don’t think a game at Wembley has experienced two sets of supporters who have been through what Portsmouth and Sunderland have. Years of dross and mismanagement followed by a rebirth meant that we were up for a bloody good party.
A fairly uneventful drive, via motorway services crammed with yet more Sunderland folk, saw us in our Watford hotel by 11:15, then came the hopeless search for a pub that had room for us. There weren’t any, so it was the long queue in the offy and a few cans by the fanzone before entering the ground. Post-match plans were made before we split up and headed for our seats, the sun shone, and we lined up much as expected:
O’Nien BaldwinFlanagan James
Morgan Honeyman McGeady
We defended the goal in front of “our” end, and we were on top from the off, with Morgan finding Honeyman, whose cross was a yard away from Grigg’s toe and the opening goal – within a minute or so. Looking canny, Lads. McGeady, whose new white boots would have glinted in the sunshine if it had reached down to that side of the pitch, simply murdered them. He was all over the left side of the pitch, dancing around his marker, cutting inside, laying it off…
After a dodgy free-kick, which McLaughlin dealt with comfortably, we piled into the blues, with Morgan’s shot ending up on top on the goal thanks to a last-ditch toe-end, and Leadbitter having a free-kick touched past the post. Only a matter of time, surely…and we thought it come when Morgan struck a volley as sweet as you like, but their keeper was up to the task. Ten minutes later, with about six left to the break, we won a free kick in an area where “McGeady Territory” was painted on the grass, about thirty yards out. Well, it might as well have been, as, after what seemed like an eternity, Aiden stepped up and curled a beat over the wall and just under the bar. Better, even, than his effort in the league at Bristol Rover, and we in the stands responded accordingly. Folks stotted about and around the terraces and hugged each other. We were winning. At Wembley. In the sunshine. Life was good.
We could, and should have scored at least another, but the added minute brought no more goals. No changes for the second half, and although Pompey nearly had the ball in the net, O’Nien had been fouled and we continued in as we’d ended the first half. For a while. Then it all went a bit daft. As the hour approached, we seemed to sit back and invite pressure, which Pompey were all too happy to apply. A shot across McLaughlin came off the post, we heaved a sigh of relief, but it was more of the same soon after with a shot over the top and another chance wasted. It seemed like we were going to just about hang on, and with 18 minutes left Ross decided to add a bit of pace by replacing Morgan with Gooch. Soon after that, Power came on for Grigg, who was probably still nursing the injury that forced his withdrawal from the Norn Irn squad and had not had the best of afternoons.
Then we broke. Not in a nice way up front, but at the back, where Thompson arrived at the back post to head pat McLaughlin. Aw, man, bugger. We hadn’t shown enough in the second half to indicate that we had it in us to get the winner in the eight minutes of normal time that remained, so another change was needed. We were all set to fling on Wyke to add beef up front when James took a knock and had to be replaced by Hume. Despite the energy young Denver provided, including a burst forward ending with a cross that evaded everybody. the added two minutes brought no real joy and it went to extra time.
We needed a sharp save from big Jon early on to keep us level after some dithering at the back, and he had to be at his best soon after to stop another effort. Wyke came on as our fourth sub (you can do that in extra time, apparently) replacing Leadbitter, and he did add some presence up front. The first extra fifteen ended with a single added minute, and we were still wondering if big Chas could be the man to get us the winner when, with six minutes left (sound familiar?) it was a lobbed effort over McLaughlin that provided the next goal, and Pompey were in front. Bugger, bugger, bugger. Never say die, though, and Wyke did really well to get the ball out to McGeady, bursting into the box along the goal line from the left, and his shot went in off somebody’s backside or leg or heel. We didn’t care. Last minute equalisers at Wembley are great. The two added minutes were a bit pointless, as both sides had accepted that penners would decide their fate, and so it was.
Of course, because we’re Sunderland and the world is still against us, they were taken at the Pompey and we went first. McGeady, no bother. 1-0
Catts – it wasn’t that bad a penalty, but experts will tell you that it was at a nice height if the keeper goes the right way. Which he did. 1-1
Gooch, high into the net. 2-2
O’Nien, a pretty unconvincing effort, but it sent the keeper the wrong way and went in. 4-4.
4-5. That’s all folks.
We swarmed out of the ground, endured the huge queue for the to be at Wembley Park, and were consoled by Pompey fans, one of whom said “hard lines, see you here at the end of May.” I hope not, mate.
At a Spoons in Harrow on the Hill, our Ian revealed our location via social media and invited the provision of commiseration in the form of drinks. Thanks to the magic of the Spoons App, they arrived – a pint each, a bottle for Liam, a jug of Sex on the Beach, four Skittlebombs, an apple juice, a side order of chilli sauce, and a jug of something black and fizzy that was donated to Jacka’s table. Suitably fed and watered, it was back to Watford for a nightcap and to ponder the day’s goings-on. We lost. We’d generally had a good weekend, result apart. We’d shown the world that we are Sunderland, and it has allegedly been a good game for the neutral.
Man of the Match? McGeady by a mile, despite getting a bit tired in the second half – but his first half showing will have his international manger wondering why he didn’t pick him last weekend.
See you at Stanley…