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? Here's Sobs' take on our 1990 Play Off Final v Swindon...
My third trip to the Empire Stadium, in 1990, seemed to be part of a downward trend – FA Cup Final, League Cup Final, then Play-off Final. This time, though, there were two prizes at stake, as the winners not only got promoted, but got a trophy as well, which seems a bit unnecessary when the second placed team got nothing but promotion. Football, eh? As it was, we managed to win neither the game nor the trophy, but still went up. Typical Sunderland.
Anyway, there was a canny back story to our arrival at the old ground on May 28th. Having in sixth place on 74 points, thanks to a last-day defeat at home by Oldham, we were drawn in the semi-final against them up the road, who’d finished six points better off in third place. Nowt like a bit of local rivalry to make the whole thing interesting.
For some reason, I could only get us tickets for the Roker End, which put us painfully close to the great unwashed of Tyneside – but that proximity proved priceless when Gary Owers tackled Billy Askew with his head, just to see the look on their faces. There were three bookings in the first eight minutes as the tone was set, but no goals were forthcoming. We decided against using super sub Thomas Hauser despite Gatesy and Marco failing to find the net, but as we entered the final minute, ref Vic Callow blew for a foul. Penalty, and Hardyman didn’t mist them. Not very often, anyway, but as it was at the Fulwell, my view was a distant one. Anyway, Burridge dived down to his right to save, Hardyman carried on running, and the rest is history. A red card for hoofing the keeper in the head, although it’s since been claimed that no contact was actually made. Whatever the reality, we were in effect at half-time in the semi-final, and had supposedly not made the most of home advantage. What followed was one of the most memorable games in the club’s history, but I missed it. Through choice. I reckoned that there was no way I’d be able to get to and from Sid James Park without entering into discussions with at least one member of Her Majesty’s Royal Tyneside Muppetry, so I decided there’d be no radio, nothing. I drew the curtains so that there was no chance of catching sight of Finny the mag over the road making hand signals. That plan lasted all of thirty seconds before the radio was on, and when Owers did his little trick out on the right and the ball arrived at the near post, Gatesy’s toe was first to the ball and we were ahead. I was out of the front door in a flash, sprinting over the road to bang on Finny’s window, then back home for the rest of the game. We’ve seen the second goal, a perfect example of the G-Force in action, a million times since, and it loses none of its magic. Neither does the sight of the hard of thinking mags doing what they do best, and trying to get the game abandoned by invading the pitch. As the players sheltered in the tunnel, ref George Courtney told Benno that the game would finish “if we have to stay here until midnight.” As the Bigg Market phone box probably took a bit of a pezzling, I nipped over the road to bang on Finny’s window again. Swindon at Wembley – nee bother. We’d won at their place in the first game of the season, so all we had to do was to repeat that. Forget the draw at home, but add that Ossie Ardiles was their manager.
I’ve no idea how tickets were allocated, but as there were less than 73,000 present, there can’t have been that much demand. There were 80,000 at that seasons FA Cup final, so there must have been gaps in the stands.
As I’ll travel with anyone to get to a game, I was picked up by the Willington lads from the Newton Cap pub at midnight – a good start to the day, as getting a drink that late was still a stoppy-back in those unenlightened times. We were in London at sunrise, parked up near Wembley, and onto the tube into town, but not until bottles of milk had liberated from doorsteps by way of breakfast. Most of the bus headed for early beers at Smithfield Market. I took a more relaxed approach, doing a fry-up at Del’s Diner at St Pancras in an attempt to relive the 1973 experience, then met up with folk s in the Lamb and got properly warmed up for the game. Wembley was tatty, even tattier than 1985, and we wondered how long it could survive before falling down as we took our places, and watched as the Lads spectacularly failed to turn up. The midfield of Bracewell, Armstrong, Owers, and Pascoe should have been able to provide the bullets for Gatesy and Marco, but it simply didn’t happen. It might have been a record-breaking 59th appearance for Armstrong that season, but fatigue had nothing to do with it. Swindon’s midfield constantly swapped places, we were chasing shadows, and the score-line would have been a lot worse had it not been for Benno’s defensive heroics and Tony Norman playing arguably his bets game. Ironically, for all their possession, Swindon only scored when a Benno block ballooned up and over the helpless Norman. Another OG, just like 1985. Bugger. There was no way we were getting back into that game, and it was depressing watching the Lads struggle to achieve precisely nothing.
Immediately after the game ay Sid James, there had been rumours that Swindon were going to be punished for financial misdemeanours, meaning that whatever the result they weren’t going up, but players who heard those rumours have denied it affected their performance in the final. Whether that’s true or not, we lost, and we had to troop dejectedly back to the bus and endure six hours of misery and canned beer, musing over what had been the worst performance I had witnessed at the national stadium by a Sunderland team. It still is – in the other games, we were in with a chance. Against Norwich, we’d survived the first half and missed a penalty soon after the only goal. Against Liverpool, we missed a good chance but survived the first half. Against Charlton, we should have won, and went into the break ahead against Man City, while against Leeds we won. Against Swindon, we were battered, and I expect everybody was as dejected as I was for the next few days – until Swindon Town became Swindle Town when it was revealed that they hadn’t hidden their illegal payments well enough. All sort of scenarios were put forward, but for one the powers that be agreed with Sunderland fans, and we went up.
If you’re going to lose at Wembley, do it by playing dreadfully against a team with a dodgy financial set-up. If you’re going to get promoted from sixth position after losing at Wembley, do it at the expense of the team in second place….and make that team your nearest and dearest rivals. Take that, Mr Magpie, stick in your pipe and smoke it. Mebbe leaving an empty champagne bottle on Finny’s doorstep was a bit childish, but it had to be done.