In the run up to our Checkatrade Trophy Final, we have invited our crack (not crap) team of ALS writers to recount their favourite Magic Wembley Moments, or should that be tragic? First up here’s Michael Conroy with the 1998 Play Off Final against Charlton…
For those not in the know Stirling is one of the most historic cities in Scotland. A castle that towers over the city with a gateway to the highlands stretched over green lands punctuated only by the rumbling Ochils and the phallic Wallace Monument. It is also the land where William Wallace fought against proud Edward’s army as the song goes. Except if you visit Stirling you should know that the bridge from the famous battle is only in its current location due to convenience rather than historical accuracy. A statue of Mel Gibson rather than William Wallace used to stand at the foot of the famous monument but embarrassment, I assume, has meant that the statue has since been “archived”.
At the opposite end of the monument is a magnificent Italian ice cream shop which serves great coffee and even better cannolis. Next door is a pub. The William Wallace. When I walked into the William Wallace on 25th May 1998 it had been a deliberate choice. Yes there was a risk of being exposed as a sassenach student but it was out of the glare of sports bars and university bars. It would be quiet, and they had a television and sky sports. Which was very important. My nerves had got the better of me and in the absence of any fellow Sunderland fans I had abandoned the Rangers and Celtic fans I had as friends to take myself away to watch the play off final in peace. If it was to be a torment it would be a private one. I chose a seat at the bar partly because of the good view of the television but partly because one of my English cohorts had been glassed in a club that week “for Braveheart”. I thought sticking close to the bar staff would offer some protection.
London seemed a million miles away as I sat in the dark confines of that pub. I was devastated not to be there but Wembley tickets and all that, I’m Not sure I qualified for any phases in those days. My parents were there though. Three men played pool and looked up as I walked in, eyeballing the student before returning to their game. I ordered a pint before asking the barmaid if she could turn the play off final on. She obliged and within seconds I was aware of a presence behind me. “Who’s playing?” Now this was a big test. You see, as a child I was brought up in Africa so I don’t have the north east accent that immediately puts Scots at ease (“ah that’s ok you’re not proper English” etc etc). “Sunderland and Charlton”. A pause. “So, who do you support?” I turned and looked at the man behind me holding a pool cue and suddenly realised I was fine. Not anything to do with him really, just that here we were about to play a London team and as far as he was concerned, I was on the right side. I took a sip of my drink before declaring proudly “Sunderland of course”.
There followed lengthy discussion about Sunderland, partly testing me I guess, but it was really interesting. His two mates joined the conversation and we reminisced about 1992 and Anton Rogan. From that you can probably guess which side of Glasgow they preferred.
As the teams took to the pitch in glorious sunshine the pool game resumed and the knot in my stomach returned. Perez worried me. Brilliant in flashes. Erratic overall. Only him and Renee Higuita seemed to prefer to use their feet rather than their hands. Quinn and Phillips of course were reliable and we had seasoned pros in Ball and Clark. This team was coming together and you could argue we were favourites. Indeed I think we expected to win as those teams walk out. Richard Rufus May have been a star of championship manager but he wasn’t exactly tearing up trees. Admittedly Mark Bright had been a shining star for years, but he was getting on a bit. Kinsella was a good player. But Mendonca? That lad from Sunderland who played for Grimsby? I’d rather have Quinn and Phillips thanks.
After a typical scrappy Wembley start where players bomb around trying to take the match and the crowd roar for every single slight opportunity the game settled a little. The nervous exchanges giving way to a Sunderland spell as a mistake from Ilic almost gave us an opening before Bally headed over the bar. Then a right wing throw in for Charlton was flicked on by Bright and Mendonca sold Craddock a dummy before finishing calmly past Perez. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Sunderland came back but Charlton looked dangerous on the break. I sat nervously at the bar as the clack of pool balls echoed. Half time. We had 45 minutes to turn this around.
5 minutes into the second half and we were back. A corner swung in and Quinn headed it low to equalise. Right boys, here we go. Quinn blazed over shortly afterwards before Clark hit a lovely pass over the top for Superkev to run on to with predictable effect. This was it! Not only were we going up but Phillips had just broken Clough’s one season goal scoring record. Albeit Clough had bust his leg on Boxing Day that season. The game should be routine now right? Wrong. Steve Jones won the ball and Rufus was the first to it. Lobbing a pass to Mendonca. A couple of touches later and Charlton were level. My nerves were shot. By this point my roars for the Quinn and Phillips goals had brought three new spectators to the bar, pool balls abandoned. They groaned as it went to 2-2.
Within minutes I was off my chair being hugged by Scotsmen as a deep Clark cross found Quinn’s chest before he took it down and finished past Ilic. Surely that was it now? To underline the finality Phillips left the pitch. Fatigued. Replaced by Dichio who almost made it certain but his volley was, well, Ill judged shall we say. 5 minutes to go. We are going up say we are going up. Corner to Charlton. Defend this lads and we’re done. Deep corner. In slow motion I watched as Perez had his moment of madness. Running through the defenders with a presumption that he was far taller than he actually was. His hand stretched, reaching and missed. Richard Rufus head slightly behind was perfectly placed. 3-3. Extra time it was. The heat of Wembley had sapped those players, the game even more so.
This was going to be an extra time which was run down because the players were so exhausted. Sunderland built patiently. Taking their time. Then the ball swung in to Quinn who cushioned it beautifully for Summerbee and Ilic had no chance 4-3. Pints all ower. Scotsmen running around the pub celebrating with me. “You’ve done it! Golden goal”. Then it kicked off again. No golden goal rule in this game lads. Quinn nearly scored again. We were all over them. Holding play. Letting that clock tick over. Half time just around the corner. Jones crosses low and hard behind Mendonca who stopped, controlled, turned and fired past Perez. 4-4.
Now I have some issue with what followed. The penalty shootout was virtually impeccable. One player didn’t want to take a penalty but when the named takers had all scored it went to sudden death. The oldest player left to take a penalty looked around. Despite the fact he was a left back and was drained from the full game he noticed that our striker who had come on as a sub so had less fatigue had already taken his boots off. He had no choice. Micky Gray stepped up with all the energy sapped. Ilic saved a weak penalty and that was it. Charlton were promoted. My head sank and I sat with my face rested down on my arms on the bar. Devastated. The greatest game of all time perhaps but in that moment it was the worst. With my head buried I heard the television go mute. In the minutes that I sat there I thought about what had just happened and fought the emotion inside me. I raised my head to find three whiskies on the bar in front of me. Hands slapped my shoulders. “Head up son. Next season you’ll do it”.