What is there to say about the 1998 Division One play-off final that hasn’t already been said? Well my personal memories of the day, that’s what. At just a little over 13 years old it’s fair to say a fairly sheltered existence had been lived by this point, and while I’d been a frequent visitor to home games this was my first Sunderland match at any other ground. And what better way to break this particular duck than with a trip to the old Wembley, possibly the most famous football stadium in the world.
To provide context, if any was needed, having been raised on a diet of Butcher and Buxton at a crumbling Roker Park, Sunderland now felt very much like a club reinvented… new badge, new stadium and new, exciting football. ‘New Sunderland’ if you will, and what I was to witness at Wembley was to provide quite the education, education, education.
We set off, from memory, at about 5am in the morning. Certainly, the earliest I’d ever had to leave for anything ever, just a completely inhumane time. The “we” in question were me, my dad, and three of his mates. Whilst no one could be described as being of a Michael Bridges-style physique, to say we were packed in was an understatement. I, as the youngest, sveltest and least able to drive got the humiliation of the back-middle seat. So, we set off, me wedged between middle aged thighs on either side (stop sniggering at the back) for a near six-hour journey to capital city, the windy apple.
My main memories of the journey were listening to endless cassette tapes of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The News Quiz while a service stop near Leicester was completely bedecked in red and white, swarming with Sunderland fans and pop-up stalls selling pre-match merch. Our driver was none other than the headteacher of Castle View School, of which Michael Gray and Clive Mendonca were both former pupils, and the school received a little bit of extra attention in the aftermath of the game for reasons that are probably already clear.
We parked up on the outskirts of London and made our way towards Wembley on the tube before arriving at some kind of social club about a mile from the ground. This was long before the days of the Cans & Megabus guides that are now all the rage so I’ve no idea how we narrowed down all the watering holes of this nation’s fair capital to this. Inside we were greeted by what was probably tame by most people’s standards but to my young, impressionable self this was like the last days of Sodom and Gomorrah. My eyes stung from clouds of smoke, but once my vision had adjusted I could just make out people dancing on tables to raucous renditions of “Ooh Bally Bally” and “Let’s All Have A Disco”. I had a coke and gawped at the scenes unfolding.
Soon it was time to head to the ground and very much a continuation of those Leicester services as Wembley Way was packed, seemingly exclusively, with Sunderland fans. In fact, I did not see a single Charlton fan until we were in the ground, their supporters presumably airlifted directly into their seats as some kind of extra London-privilege. The toilets were another formative experience and a line from the book And Up Steps Michael Gray summed them up perfectly. “The toilets on Wembley Way had two ends… a deep end and a shallow end”.
My main non-football memories of being inside the ground were that the “seats” were little more than an A4 sized strip of rigid plastic, suspended by a metal pole, that everyone proceeded to stand on. Quite the balancing act for those who’d indulged in the kind of debauchery witnessed at the social club earlier. I won’t go into the game itself as everyone knows what happened in detail but it was without doubt, and still is, the most exhilarating football experience of my life.
After the game we trudged back to where we’d parked via the tube, no drowning of sorrows for us, and it was another 6 hours wedged back into the car. Only the occasional Fast Show cassette in amongst another I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue marathon provided light relief.
Although I’ve been to the new Wembley a couple of times for non-Sunderland games and seen us play in other big occasions at neutral grounds (Old Trafford for Millwall in 2004 anyone?) Saturday will be my first time back to see us play there since that day in 1998. Surely, this time, can the nice things just happen to us?