It’s the 31st March 2019 and Sunderland are due to take on Portsmouth at Wembley Stadium for the Checkatrade.com Trophy final. Whilst many spent the night before partying in Trafalgar Square (to probably quite a few headaches the next day), many fans rose in the early hours of the day itself to travel via trains, cars and coaches. Wembley way was split red and white, and blue the morning and early afternoon of the day, as each side’s fan-zone saw Mackems and blues from all around the country, and the globe, commune. 85,000 fans packed into the stadium, a figure which was only topped by Barcelona vs Espanyol over that weekend across the entirety of Europe. After belting out an impressive rendition of Can’t Help Falling In Love, the stage was set...
Despite a dominating first-half, the lads appeared to be heading towards half-time without having found the breakthrough. With thirty-eight minutes played, Aiden McGeady stood over a free-kick twenty-five yards from goal. As 45,000 Wearsider's held our breath, the Republic of Ireland international struck the ball sweetly, making it over Pompey's five-man wall with a slight deflection from Matt Clarke before graciously dipping into Pompey's top-left hand corner, past an out-stretched Craig MacGillivray, soaring into the back of the net. Sunderland supporters descended into chaos as a roar swept around the stadium, equally as impressive as the opening goal.
The second half, however, proved to be very different. The intense, aggressive and expressive Sunderland that controlled the first half was nowhere to be seen as the second-half unfolded. Following waves of attacks from the blues, Matt Clarke drove down the left with the ball at his feet in the 82nd minute, laying it off to the unmarked Gareth Evans whose right-footed cross seemed to hang in the air for an age, before Nathan Thompson snuck-in at the back-post, beating the unaware Reece James to a header, which despite Tom Flanagan's efforts he was unable to prevent finding the back of the net. Wheeling away in celebration in front of the Portsmouth supporter's, it couldn't be argued the goal was against the run of play. We now faced extra-time.
An exciting bit of play saw Denver Hume skip past two blue shirts before drilling the ball across the face of the goal, but Evans was there to send the ball clear before Luke O'Nien could convert the first goal of extra-time. Minutes later, Clarke was, once again, a part of the blue's build-up play. A left-footed swing up the field was taken down by Jamal Lowe whose touch took Jack Baldwin, our last port of call before Jon McLaughlin, out of the game. Spotting McLaughlin off his line, a composed lob edged Portsmouth in-front in the 112th minute. As celebration's ensued throughout Pompey's end, the feeling of despair was only amplified by the fact we'd been leading with only nine minutes of the ninety remaining.
As the clock ran down, the hope of seeing our lads triumphantly lift the trophy became smaller and smaller with each passing moment. As Christian Burgess headed the ball clear in the 119th minute, Hume volleyed the ball straight back into the box. Charlie Wyke calmly took the ball down with his chest and spotted the darting run of McGeady. After Wyke slid the ball into the path of the scorer of the opening goal, a clever turn sent Thompson to the floor. With Anton Walkes bearing down on him, McGeady's left footed shot drove along the floor, past MacGillivray. Matt Clarke's dramatic attempt to block the shot only slowed its momentum, as the ball trickled over the line and into the back of the net, met by a deafening roar of relief. Pandemonium unfolded in the capital as the travelled supporter's hope of a win was back on, with Wembley shaking.
With either team unable to find a winner in extra time, the game went to dreaded penalties. With Lee Cattermole the only Sunderland player to not successfully convert from 12 yards on the day, Sunderland's hopes rested upon Jon McLaughlin saving Ollie Hawkins' penalty to take it to sudden death. A right footed strike painfully sent the Scotsman the wrong way, as Portsmouth ran-out winners of what was a dramatic final.
After many fans viewed the game as more of a fun day out, not putting much importance on the result of the match, seeing Brett Pittman lift the trophy following such a close, action-packed final was a real kick in the teeth. Seeing the lads finally win again at Wembley and claim our first silverware since 1973 would have felt even more special given the rollercoaster of emotions the game gave. Despite winning back-to-back games straight after this, many fans viewed the day’s shortcomings as a catalyst for our failed promotion push. Whilst the events of the game coupled with the atmosphere lead to the game being described by neutrals as a ‘great advert for League 1 football’, it’s simply another unsuccessful trip to Wembley for us Sunderland fans.
We return to Wembley this Sunday; is this the time we break the curse?