Football is full of little quirks and coincidences. Not those daft charts that appear every European Championship or World Cup which ‘prove’ England are going to win the tournament. I mean stuff like how, back in 1962, Accrington Stanley resigned from the league and were replaced by Oxford United. Then, in 2006, Oxford were relegated to the Conference and replaced by Accrington Stanley.
This season’s League One play-off final is a repeat of the Championship one from 1998 between Sunderland and Charlton. Not impressed? Try this: back in 1998, Charlton finished the regular season with 88 points from 26 wins, 10 draws and 10 defeats. This season they finished with exactly the same record.
But what does this mean? That Charlton are destined to repeat that final win of 1998 and seal promotion? Of course not: it means nothing, but does at least give us the chance to look back at one of the all-time classic play-off finals and lick our lips at the prospect of a repeat 21 years on.
The 1998 Division One play-off final is remembered by Charlton fans as ‘The Mendonca final’, after Addicks striker Clive bagged a hat-trick. But that was just half of the story.
The teams had reached the final with little bother. Charlton beat Ipswich 1-0 in each leg and Sunderland clawed back a 2-1 deficit at Sheffield United with relative ease to win their tie 3-2 overall. Once the teams met at the old Wembley, staging one of its last finals, it was a very different matter.
In a cagey first half, Mendonca gave Charlton the lead, latching on to a flick from Mark Bright, turning on the edge of the area and finishing with the sort of style that Dennis Bergkamp was parading down the Premier League catwalk back then.
Niall Quinn somehow managed to squeeze a header through the tightest of gaps from a Nicky Summerbee corner early in the second half, though, and minutes later Kevin Phillips scored a classy lob to put the Black Cats ahead. With less than 20 minutes left, Mendonca popped up again, latching onto a ball from Keith Jones to finish from just inside the box. A very average match had suddenly started shaping up into a classic.
Two minutes later, Quinn showed the other side of his game when he took the ball on his chest and blasted home a brilliant shot between Charlton goalkeeper Sasa Ilic and his near post. With whistles ringing around the famous old Twin Towers as Sunderland fans prepared to celebrate a thrilling return to the top fight, Charlton made what had to be one last assault on the Wearsiders’ goal. They got a corner – and made it count. The ball was met by a mass of Charlton and Sunderland bodies around the penalty spot – but it was Richard Rufus who rose highest to head beyond the onrushing Lionel Perez and into an empty net. 3-3, extra-time.
Despite the humid conditions and unrelenting pace of the previous 45 minutes, the teams pushed on again like a couple of battle-weary but unbowed heavyweight boxers for an additional half-hour. Nine minutes in, Sunderland took the lead for a third time when Summerbee fired home from the edge of the area, finishing off a neat move between Michael Gray and Niall Quinn.
Stung into action once more, back came Charlton. Only four minutes after it seemed like Sunderland had surely clinched it, Steve Jones crossed from the right to find Mendonca on the edge of the six-yard box. He took the ball at an awkward height but managed to control it, turn and complete his hat-trick for an astonishing 4-4.
Mendonca was to score the next goal, too – but this was the first of a penalty shoot-out that proved almost as remarkable as the 120 minutes of football that had preceded it. He buried the first of 13 penalties that all hit the back of the net.
As Sunderland’s Michael Gray made the lonely walk to take a vital 14th in sudden death, the tension around Wembley’s 77,000-strong crowd was palpable. After a string of virtually perfect penalties, the Sunderland-born defender took a jittery run-up to execute his vital spot-kick.
It’s easy to say now looking back at it, but the pressure was evident in his approach more so than any of the previous 13 which were dispatched by both teams which such ruthlessness and venom. None were really placed – they relied on power and were blasted home with the goalkeeper having little or no chance of saving. There were certainly no Panenka attempts.
Gray’s almost seemed to go in slow motion. As he swung what must have been a leaden left foot at his kick, Ilic easily predicted the delicately dragged path of the ball to make a comfortable save down to his left and send Charlton into the Premier League.
It was a miss that Gray, now a television pundit, admits haunted him for years afterwards – and quite understandably, given how close Sunderland were to winning the tie first in 90 minutes and then extra-time.
It was a season when Manchester City were relegated to English football’s third tier, Manchester United were pipped to the title by a Double-winning Arsenal in Arsene Wenger’s second season in charge, and Brighton and Hull narrowly avoided relegation out of the league altogether. A fitting finale to another thrilling year in English football.
So here we are in 2019, when Sunderland will again face Charlton in a play-off final at Wembley. We don’t really talk about revenge in football. History, as in life, belongs where it is: in the past. But that Mendonca final will surely be on the minds of both Addicks and Black Cats fans as they nervously take their places at kick-off time. Us neutrals can only hope that the match is half as good as that one back in 1998.
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