Here we go again. It’s the hope that kills you. Another trip to Wembley. Another great weekend spoilt only by the result. Are you confident? If so, good for you. I’m quite jealous of that to be honest.
Even if you’re the most positive person around, you’ll have heard the moaning on many an occasion from the pessimistic lot. The ones like me. You needn’t have ‘Soothsayer’ on the CV to predict the future, when the same result has already occurred so frequently in the past. It’s obvious to me how it’s going to go on Sunday.
I try to limit my moaning now. I’ve found my way to the next stage. Not so much apathy, but the laugh-it-off, dark comedic expectation, when the all too familiar outcome rears it’s head for the umpteenth time.
Same old story. I know how this is going to end. This is Sunderland at Wembley for goodness sake! Yet, something, somewhere chips away inside. What if this time. Stop! You just never know. Enough!
You don’t have to look too far back for evidence. The game gets underway. Start well, pin them back, comfortable on the ball, take the lead, confidence sets in, I start to believe that this time. then sit back, drop deeper, make mistakes, concede late on. Shit. Keep trying to stay positive. Full time whistle goes. Penalties. The shootout starts ok, a couple of spot kicks despatched with ease to lull you into a false sense of security, then the next player from Sunderland has his kick saved and, well, that’s that, there may be a couple of penalties left to take, but the final nail has been struck in your mind yet again.
That Checkatrade Trophy Final was viewed as a ‘nothing game’ by many, or a ‘free hit’ to others. But it was the ideal opportunity to rid this Wembley hoodoo. And we blew it. Same old story. I go into most of the big games – the ‘must-win’ games - hoping to win but expecting to lose. It’s not that the moments of joy that occur along the way aren’t met with the same delirium as others, but when the crushing blow finally lands, it’s met with a gallows humour rather than suffering months of misery.
Mostly that is. One still catches me off guard on occasion. I really hate it when that happens. It wasn’t always this way of course.
I really started to fall in love with football around 1986 at the age of 10, be it watching Sunderland at Roker Park or England on TV, I went into every game brimming with the excitement, optimism and exuberance that comes with youthful naivety. And despite the very regular setbacks along the way, that optimism, that hope that ‘this was our year’, only got stronger.
Despite seeing Sunderland lose countless Derby matches, relegation six-pointers an FA Cup Final, and England get knocked out of World Cups and European Championships, the optimism remained. Then one game came along that delivered the Mother of all knockout blows.
May 25th 1998. Wembley Stadium. The Play-Off Final. Charlton Athletic.
It wasn’t even the game itself, nor the result. It was the fact I walked through the turnstiles that day not just full of optimism, but ‘knowing’ we were going to win. And the fact we didn’t... well, I’m still not sure I’ve fully come to terms with it over 20 years later! And here we go again
26th May 2019. Wembley Stadium. The Play-Off Final. Charlton Athletic.
As I walk through the turnstile on Sunday, I’ll not do so ‘knowing’ we are going to win. I’ll hope we do, but deep down I’ll expect to lose. Not that this pessimism solely stems from that fateful Bank Holiday Monday in ’98 of course. I’d go on for an eternity if I were to dissect every time I’ve uttered ‘Typical Sunderland’, so let’s just focus on the main reason the bar in my mind has been lowered to ground zero. Sunderland AFC’s record at Wembley Stadium in my lifetime.
1985 League Cup Final v Norwich LOSE 1-0
1988 Football League Centenary Tournament v Wigan LOSE on Penalties
1990 Play-Off Final v Swindon Town LOSE 1-0
1992 FA Cup Final v Liverpool LOSE 2-0
1998 Play-Off Final v Charlton LOSE on Penalties
2014 League Cup Final v Man City LOSE 3-1
2019 Football League Trophy Final v Portsmouth LOSE on Penalties
Now regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs, the above cannot be classed as ‘Bad Luck’ or a ‘Twist of Fate’. Those lines were blurred long ago. At this stage, it is clearly just one big piss-take.
Add to these tales of woe such superstitions like the Red & White Army yet again being housed at the East side of the Stadium, adorning our away kit, coming up against The Addicks again and it just pours a great deal of salt into the wounds before we even kick-off.
So, what’s the point? Why am I going to put myself through it again? Do I really expect to lose again? Well, yes, I really do. But I don’t know we are going to lose. And that’s where it gets you.
Because despite every gut feeling and logical thought leading me back down a path of misery, there’s that absolute certainty that nothing is absolutely certain. There’s that tiny fucking glimmer of hope that will never leave, regardless of its ever-decreasing size. It never completely disappears. It’s always lingering somewhere.
And upon remembering this hope exists, that’s when you start exploring the other side of the coin. Maybe it’s because of everything I’ve just said. Maybe that’s why we’re going to win. That’s right, not despite… but because!
If you’re now thinking I’m making no sense, then you’d be correct in doing so. Of course, it makes no sense. It’s like flicking a switch in your mind and removing all rational thought. Everything that initially proved your point, now means the opposite.
But it’s Charlton Athletic? Exactly, they are the perfect opponents to exact revenge! But it’s Wembley again? Perfect, it’s the ideal setting to right so many wrongs! The Play-Offs? The East Side of the Stadium? The long list of curses can be all put to bed with just one victory!
They’ll never be forgotten of course, but with that one victory in a League One fixture, it allows you to not only enjoy the moment, but focus on the future and stop dwelling on the past. Return to Wembley in any capacity in a few years’ time and the dreadful record is barely talked of. The monkey is off the back. The victory in the last fixture, the happy memories, that’s what’s talked about in the pre-match build up.
Think about it, we were spending most of March and April eyeing up second place in the table. That’s not what we do. Second? That’s not a Sunderland-thing at all! We’ve now got the benefit of hindsight but come on, it was never going to happen! Once it was clear we weren’t going to win the League, then this fixture was the glaringly obvious outcome. But maybe on this occasion the ‘fate’ is for the right reasons?
We began this campaign in August with a last-gasp victory over Charlton Athletic. Of course, we can end it in the same vain. Of course, we can.
Yes, but what about ‘typical Sunderland’? Maybe not this time. The great escapes, the derby wins, the Old Trafford Penalty Shootout, there are so many moments that break the mould in recent history.
Maybe we can finally be the ones hanging around in Wembley for the Trophy lift. Will it matter that the Cup itself is as tinpot as can be, of course not! We can be the ones dancing and singing to the excessively loud and horrendously cheesy tunes that will blare out from the speakers. And we’ll absolutely love it!
Even the lowest League position in our history will be almost irrelevant. Because in that moment, we’ll have won promotion. Finishing fifth in the third tier won’t matter in the slightest. Maybe this time we can celebrate after the game as well as before it!
And who knows, maybe even the Penalty Shootout hoodoo will also be overcome? We know that we don’t do things the easy way. We all know our record of drawing games this Season. None of us want to endure another one, but it could easily happen.
Look at England. Think Penalty failures and for the last 30 years you think of England. Sunderland at Wembley, England in a shootout. Same zero expectation. Same outcome. Until the last one. That hoodoo broken with a win against Columbia.
The game gets underway.
Start well, pin them back, comfortable on the ball, take the lead, confidence sets in, I start to believe that this time, then sit back, drop deeper, make mistakes, concede late on.
Shit. Keep trying to stay positive
Full time whistle goes. Penalties.
The shootout starts ok, a couple of spot kicks despatched with ease to lull you into a false sense of security, then the next player from Sunderland has his kick saved and, well, that’s that, there may be a couple of penalties left to take, but the final nail has been struck in your mind yet again.
Except that time, it was different. But that’s England. That’s Henderson missing instead of Cattermole. They had Pickford, they’re England! It may sound absurd to compare the national side at a World Cup with a League One outfit, but it’s all relative isn’t it? The same old story. The same zero expectation.
And despite everything I say or think to the contrary up until 3pm on Sunday, I’ll still have that hope that this time it’s going to be different for Sunderland too. Of course, we can win. Of course, it can be our time.
Off the pitch the SAFC fans will be loud, will be proud, and will sing our hearts out for the lads one final time in this long old season. We have given our all from day one. We deserve the post-match party.
On the pitch the SAFC players will give their all too. Just as they also have from day one. They also deserve a post-match party.
Will we all get one? Here’s hoping…
Ha’way the Lads