Five o’clock is approaching and the West Stand of Wembley is bouncing. The team in red and white have done it. It didn’t look like they always would this season but it be can’t taken away now. The opposition haven’t turned up, they’ve been outthought. In the East Stand, the fans that were hoping to bounce straight back up are dejected as another season in the League One dogfight beckons. Charlton’s last minute winner has broken Sunderland hearts.
Fast forward three years and the scenes are similar. Except this time, it’s Sunderland’s time. After generations of Wembley turmoil, we finally were the ones celebrating. Ross Stewart has made it two nil with only ten minutes of normal time remaining and with Sunderland looking as composed as ever under Alex Neil, this is not slipping away.
Anyone who looked around them will have seen grown men and women in tears. Even your most cynical mates were overcome with it all. Decades of pent-up frustration was coming out here, it was so much more than this promotion, it was the fact that it was finally our time.
I’m walking down Wembley Way much earlier than I have done for previous trips. I’ll be doing my bit to help rouse the red and white army (which, let’s be honest, for an occasion such as this is a pretty easy gig) before kick off. That means a soundcheck and a few run throughs, starting at 10.45am. On the tube over, the emotions are kicking in. Everything is making me fill up with tears, just like it was the night before as I met up with groups of friends and family across London.
I expected Wembley to be fairly subdued at this early hour but its far from it. Just down the steps from Wembley Park station, a man is carting around a speaker which bellows choruses of “Ha’way The Lads.” The Boxpark queue is building steadily. Families get their selfies with the arch in shot.
I also thought being in Wembley with just under five hours to go until kick off would make my nerves worse. The total opposite happens though, as I stand in front of Alex Neil’s dugout while Niall Quinn is mere yards away, being interviewed as part of the pre-match build up.
Maybe it’s the surrealness of such a different Wembley experience but it’s a welcome distraction.
Then the stands start filling up. Gradually, over 45,000 Sunderland fans begin to take up their spots, hoping this will be where they witness one of the proudest moments following the club. 35 minutes until kick off and I have a beautiful backdrop of them all as I shout down a camera lens and my voice echo’s around the stadium. My speech begins to be rightfully drowned out though as shouts of “ha’way” fill the air and then into a beautiful rendition of Wise Men Say.
I’m shaking with adrenaline. What a buzz, what an experience. All we need now is for the lads to do what we they have been doing for weeks now and that feeling is going to be amplified by a ridiculous amount.
It’s easy to say in hindsight but Sunderland were never losing that game. A goal after less than 15 minutes didn’t just destabilise Wycombe, it settled Sunderland down. The composure that has been seen for the entirety of this run was glowing off the players, none more so than Corry Evans and Alex Pritchard. Wily, experienced, quality players who did their respective jobs with the type of class you have come to expect.
In the directors’ box, reminders of the footsteps these lads are following in. Huge cheers went up for sightings of Niall Quinn and Peter Reid, as they appeared on the big screens. On the opposite side of the ground, Kevin Phillips sat in the Sky Sports studio, was serenaded. Legends not just of Sunderland but of the whole game, reminding you just how big this club is.
Now it’s time to add new names to the folklore. Ross Stewart, without whom none of this would have been possible, finishing off the game in front of the Sunderland supporters. Bailey Wright, fresh off a sickness bug, continuing to g’day the ball away whenever Wycombe threatened, alongside the colossal Danny Batth. Luke O’Nien, enjoying his best run of form in the middle of midfield, celebrating tackles like they’re adding years onto his life. The cool “don’t worry lads, I’ll just take the pressure off us in this absolutely fucking massive game by just dribbling the ball about 40 yards while making it look so easy you wonder if I’m actually trying. Also did I mention I’m really handsome?” energy of Patrick Roberts and Jack Clarke. It’s happening, it’s actually happening.
Dreams may have been coming true off the pitch, but it was happening on it too, with the players who have been here the longest. A clean sheet from the academy graduate who was in non-league until the turn of the year. The kid who came over from California as a teenager, who has been adopted by Wearside. The lad who watched the 2014 League Cup final from the stands, now watching from the bench. And of course, the one who was here last season getting promoted with another side, scoring the goal to get us off and running.
The fact is, this moment was always on and it had been building for weeks. Sunderland got into the play offs with minimal fuss in the end. Yes, the late goals of course added some drama but there was an assured nature to it. In the way that James Bond films would be boring if Blofeld simply just shot 007 in the head, there will always be an appreciation for going via the scenic route if you want to create some tension. However, at Morecambe on the final day of the regular season, Sunderland could have feasibly blown it. 1-0 up early on though and it was job basically done. You could say the same for the performance at Wembley.
The moment Patrick Roberts had us booking our trains to London saw the drama become particularly prevalent, of course. “Fucking hell, imagine if we actually go up?” we said as we bounced away from Sheffield. There was a true sense of it actually being different this time. And it was.
It’s finally our club anthems ringing round Wembley at full time. Ready To Go, Things Can Only Get Better, I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, Paint Your Wagon, Three Little Birds. They’re certainly not being grouped together on any compilations, in any other circumstances but it’s time for the DJ to play our requests. Time for our players to climb those steps. Time for someone else to watch on and wish it was them.
So many people deserve their slice of the credit for this victory but in the celebrations after, every Sunderland fan is declaring their love for Alex Neil. A man who fits the club perfectly, the right man at the right time. By the time the regular season ended, he was comfortably the best manager in League One, of course he was going to get the better of anyone in the play offs.
I watched the game stood next to my girlfriend. This season, we have made many away trips together, both good and bad. For Oxford, Wigan and Sheffield Wednesday in the play offs, there was Portsmouth, Bolton and well, Sheffield Wednesday in the league. As we remind each other to take this moment in, walking out of Wembley as winners, we also remind each other that it’s made all of those bad times worth it.
I finally meet up with my dad in the pub, who was sat with my cousin for the game. They were together at the 1992 FA Cup Final and today they got to bring it full circle. Various other friends make their way to this glorious Bloomsbury boozer and I look around and have a moment. With the exception of two school friends and two family members, it’s possible I would not know any of this 30 strong group if it were not for Sunderland AFC. And here we are, all together, happy, celebrating a day we will remember for the rest of our lives. Tears have been shed all weekend but now it’s punctuated with the phrase “this has been the best day of my life.”
This has been a tough era following the club, which makes the celebrations all the better. A moment to celebrate after years of darkness. As already highlighted, this season alone has had its moments of hardship. You will remember it forever now though. No more pizza cup, no more FA Cup first round, no more being the biggest day out in the division. I won’t pretend there wasn’t an initial novelty to League One but I hope I never see it again.
Til The End has been the hashtag since our place in the play offs were confirmed. This is not the end though, it’s just the first step. We are truly on our way back and finally, we got to celebrate at Wembley.