Hotel cock-ups, massive lads fans, The Good Mixer, bad breakfasts and yet another Wembley defeat.
It would be hard to sum up the Play-Off final weekend in a word. Perhaps the analogy of pulling over at the side of the road to throw up would better explain it? An emotional rollercoaster.
To be honest, it had been some time since my anticipation levels were at a peak as lofty as they were ahead of the Play-Off final weekend. Not because I thought we would win, but because I wasn’t convinced we would lose.
I didn’t bother with the Checkatrade Trophy final in March. I rank my Year 10 triumph in the Ben Potts Cup final with Ferryhill Comprehensive higher than I would have ranked Sunderland winning that trophy, so my previous visit to the national stadium was for the League Cup final in 2014. Deep down, irrespective of any blind faith and superstitions, we all knew we would lose that day against City and, while we even went on to lose the Checkatrade final, that only enhanced my belief that we could win this one against Charlton. Law of averages and all that.
So, the alarm went off on Saturday morning accompanied by a flutter of excitement that only a football weekend away with the lads can provide. We were off to the smoke to watch Sunderland in a BIG game. This is why we do this, isn’t it? I had the dog out by 08.30 where I was greeted by masses of red and white shirts at the Park Lane interchange; all of whom extended a moral ‘Ha’way the lads’ at every passing fellow red and white shirt who gathered for the Megabuses. A wry smile was afforded and with the dogs business done it was time to meet up with my brother and the lads and hit the road myself, my straw being long enough to avoid driver duty.
As expected, the journey was littered with red and white flags, scarves and tops flapping out of car windows from those making the pilgrimage south, all hoping this was the time for that holy grail of a Wembley win. A brief mid-afternoon pit stop at Peterborough services was once again met with a plethora of massive lads fans before we took to the final leg of our journey down and arrived at Totteridge to get the tube in. Unfortunately, our need for beer outweighed the desire to go and find Mike Ashley’s home to inform him of the great job he is doing for that one club, that one city, that one united and apologise on behalf of our shop shouting neighbours for their holistic nature.
We stepped out at Kings Cross to the distant cries of ‘Ha’way the lads’ reverberating around what seemed like every street corner, there was already a feeling that Sunderland were taking over London. Everything had gone surprisingly smoothly up until that point; we’d got our match tickets, we’d got to London without any mishaps…we were going to win this time. And then came the hotel check-in, where the foreign receptionist succeeded in charging me twice for the room and demanded a third instalment before letting us in our digs. A number of failed bank transactions later, some exchanged words and nearly an hour mulling around in the sweatbox of a waiting room and we still weren’t in our room. By this point I was expecting Rio Ferdinand to emerge and inform me I was the latest contestant on his series of ‘Merked.’ Instead we got the manager, Darren – maybe it was a pseudonym to save face; he was more Dave than Rodney in my opinion.
Immediately ‘Darren’ knew what his receptionist had done but proceeded to blame the newly installed card machines for her monumental cock up – I suspect she might be out of a job now. With my weekend allowance taken from me and not going back into my account until the bank could reverse the transaction (it’s a bank holiday weekend so god knows when) and over an hour of our beer consumption time taken from us, the alarm bells were ringing. We should have known we would lose by that point really, shouldn’t we? As a token gesture for arsing up a routine transaction, Darren thought the least he could do was chauffeur us to our apartment. Fortunately, the apartment existed and remarkably it exceeded expectations. A further apology from my new best mate Darren was reluctantly accepted before he buggered off and we could bitch about what had happened.
Bitching done and a quick whip around for my charity fund and it was down to the nearest boozer; The Northumberland Arms conveniently – was that an omen? Christ it’s going to be a long weekend. The sunset of Saturday evening was spent in Camden, draining pints of the local Hells as swiftly as possible before finding a quirky little pub, The Good Mixer, in the arse end of Camden-Lock – the place where “gaggles of trendy Japanese girls would go in search of Damon Albarn” in the 90’s according to Stuart Maconie anyway. Needless to say, there was no Japanese Blur party. The fashionable locals did however seem pretty dumbfounded as to why a bunch of northerners would pick their dive as a watering hole, but they served wet things and we got on with the task in hand.
A bit of Twitter scrolling and a few phone calls from friends suggested a trip to Trafalgar Square wouldn’t be the worst idea, so to Hell(s) with The Good Mixer it was and off for some cans and a short tube ride across town. Of course Trafalgar Square was packed. The smell of fire crackers and flares wafted along any and all of the adjacent streets with the hiss of conversation and laughter developing and the odd burst of chorus erupting as hundreds, thousands even, continued to march to the square. It was good natured. It gave everyone the chance to add a number of photos to their albums. It gave young kids memories for a lifetime as they played football amongst the crowds being cheered on as though it were they who were playing at Wembley tomorrow. What a night. Imagine if we were any good and we could do this sort of thing on European journeys.
As the fading dusk slipped into darkness, and the crowds began to filter out the next question was where to go next? Of all the places to go in London on a Saturday night, where should we go? I know… “Oh the Sunderland fans!” said the barman in The Good Mixer.
The steady night obviously turned into a heavy one. The pints turned into spirits. The DJ became tired of our continuous requests for Ottawan in order to sing about Asamoah Gyan. Fingers went down throats to be sick and we got split up despite the pub being no bigger than your front room, before being thrown out after two for closing. The Good Mixer. What a place.
What was remarkable is how heaving Camden is at that time in the morning and how few tubes run considering. It is also remarkable how many pissed people try and operate the tube ticket turnstiles at such hour, yours truly being one of them. 45-minutes was the wait time for the next tube which we decided could be utilised by going through our songbook on the Northern Line platform. Sure enough, after bellowing out a few renditions of “By Far The Greatest Team,” with the odd hiccup here and there, we weren’t the only ones singing on the platform as yet more MLF’s joined us in serenade. Don’t worry lads, only 11 hours til kick off. Eventually we made it back to the room, well three of us did – the fourth went wandering around Kings Cross for an off licence and more cans (you can take the lads out of Ferryhill…)
The shortest sleep ever was greeted with a thick head, a tidal wave of nausea and a couple of missed calls off my new best mate, Darren (sorry Daz, it’s Play-Off final day mate, I couldn’t care less what your craic is). Christ, it’s match day. This is what it was all about. This is what The Good Mixer knew we were here for. Was it a hangover or was it the absolute dread of losing another Play-Off final? The only way to find out was to get another beer. The fifth member of our squad joined us at the Northumberland Arms in a very suspect denim and sheepskin coat, and no colours, having spent the morning shoulder to shoulder in a train vestibule where they could all detect one another’s breakfast. He was rightly vilified for such treason and as such was not involved in the album cover photo (Wembley heartbreak: coming to a League One ground near you) taken to document our day.
The hangover subsided but the nerves didn’t. I felt sick. Each passing minute, every tick closer to kick off my anxiety grew. What if we don’t win? What if we’ve got to put up with League One again? It didn’t bare thinking about. Throwing superstitions out the window we went to The Metropolitan on Baker Street – the same place we had done before the League Cup final five years ago. There were probably more Charlton fans in there than Sunderland. They were raucous. They were ready.
The next part is history, I guess. I remember thinking at the time of their late winner that I was just glad it wasn’t penalties. It almost made me laugh. I’d have cried if I didn’t. In the blink of an eye it was over. The entire season, the last 10 months of traipsing around the country watching League One football, and with the deflection off an arse cheek we would have to do it again for another season. ‘Twist And Shout’ joined ‘Supersonic’ on the ‘list of songs to avoid because it reminds you of losing at Wembley’ playlist with the Charlton fans shaking the stadium in celebration. The concourse was full of vitriol, walls were being punched, pint pots were being volleyed and the shambolic Wembley Way exit procedure allowed the dismay to sink in. Bugger (to put it bluntly).
The rest of the night was a blur, I’m sure The Good Mixer DJ knows more than me as we completed the hat-trick. And just like that it was Monday morning. This time it was a hangover. A hangover from drink and most definitely a hangover from football. As if this had happened again. Charlton, again. Will we ever win at Wembley?
All that was left to do was leave Darren some poor feedback on TripAdvisor and hit the road. Except for my brother dragging us into O’Neil’s for a mammoth full English amongst all of the animated Aston Villa and Derby fans for whose days were still full of hope and optimism. They still had a couple of hours before one of them would feel like we do right now. Breakfast arrived and the sight of it was nearly enough to knock me ill coupled with the thought of a four-hour drive to come. How bad is today going to be?
The answer? Very. Over an hour after breakfastgate and we were back in Totteridge having survived the tube ride and ready to make the long journey home. We immediately got lost in Totteridge, and when we eventually did get away, we managed some 34-miles of the A1 before project breakfast had us swing into the nearest lay-by so he could chuck up every element of said breakfast at the side of the road. The remaining 200 miles were spent fearful he would throw up in the car triggering a scene like that of the Inbetweeners in a tent.
It’s a shame really. Whenever I think about the Play-Off final weekend now, the immediate thought is one of a full Irish parking itself at the side of the motorway, perhaps that’s a better memory than the one of Charlton’s last second winner anyway. Sunderland eh. Who’d follow them.