As we continue the build-up to Saturday’s League One play-off final, ITV Tyne Tees sports reporter Simon O’Rourke brings us some memories of his time covering Sunderland under the twin towers and latterly the arch of Wembley Stadium
I started at Tyne Tees in 1996 (I was seven years old at the time) so my first professional experience of Sunderland at Wembley was the Charlton playoff in 1998 and I’ll never forget that game.
’98 was old Wembley and, if you take away nostalgia, the place was a bit of a dump by then. But there was something wonderful about “old” Wembley Way.
It wasn’t the built-up SciFi corridor it is today, it was just a long walkway with the iconic twin towers at the end. It seemed like it was ALL Sunderland Fans before the game (NOTE: It always feels like this, with all North East teams.) but to be honest, the memories of this game are about what happened on the pitch. That’s because everything happened. All the dramatic stuff that can happen in a football match happened on the same day. Every story, every plotline, every twist and every turn. You know the details.
Afterwards, I was on Sunderland Fan duty IE speaking to supporters outside the ground. I’ll never forget that because I didn’t really know what to ask (“How do you feel?” just didn’t seem enough given the circumstances.) and they didn’t really know what to say.
Fast Forward to 2014 and the “let’s give it a go” League Cup Final against Manchester City. Sunderland fans outnumbered City fans roughly 100 to 1 on Wembley Way. City were in their pre-Pep dominant phase. Their fans were used to going to Wembley and it seemed they all turned up at five to three. My big memory of that is just how well Sunderland played.
The new Wembley press box is in two parts, either side of the Royal Box. I was on the Sunderland Fans’ side of that and, genuinely, the Stadium shook when Borini scored. I think back now to sliding door moments (what if Kompany mistimed that tackle and got sent off? What if Yaya’s cross didn’t go in the top corner? What if Fletcher didn’t fresh air swing at 2-1?) but of course, City won, which is what everyone expected to happen. That meant the pain afterwards was manageable. I was doing the post-match that day and Gus and the players were all quite chuffed with their performance.
Fast forward again, to the League 1 Wembley Story. The thing I remember most about the Portsmouth Trophy Final in 2019 wasn’t the match itself, or even Wembley. It was Trafalgar Square (and Covent Garden) the night before. We went along with the camera not really knowing what to expect, and I’m so glad we did. It was incredible. A real “moment” for Sunderland. It was the fans saying “Yes, our team’s been rubbish for a few years, but we’re still here and still proud to support the lads”.
As for the match, I remember it for Sunderland going from full speed in the first half to full stop in the second and I remember it for McGeady’s wasted hero moment. That late equaliser felt like a huge, dramatic event, but it was ultimately meaningless because they lost.
There’s no dressing up the Charlton playoff final defeat in 2019. It was horrible. A proper punch in the stomach. Everything about it was laden with tension. Trafalgar Square was great again, but not AS great because it wasn’t just the Trophy and this time winning really mattered. To lose, and to lose in the gut-wrenching manner that they did was horrible. In fact, it was a horrible game. The comedy goal aside, Sunderland created virtually nothing, and Charlton weren’t really any better. I don’t think anyone deserved to win, so I thought Charlton’s last gasp goal wasn’t really earned. I did the post-match that day. George Honeyman was on the point of crying through his whole interview, bless him.
And finally, the ghost game in 2021. Football without fans was a genuinely strange thing during lockdown. A ninety-minute existential crisis. A Trophy Final without fans was just flat out weird. I was one of the few people inside Wembley for that game against Tranmere. Winning the actual trophy was neither here nor there, but putting an end to the “Sunderland can’t win at Wembley” Hoodoo was potentially very important. Good goal. Strange day.
And now here they go again. I don’t think it’ll be easy, but I do think they’ll win this time and that would unlock something new. Think about it, there’s no precedent for this. What do Sunderland fans do when they win at Wembley? Where do they go? Your Dad or your Grandad might have been there in 73, but that was a different world. They probably had a sandwich and a bottle of beer and got back on the bus. I’m fascinated to see what it would look like now.