The time is nearly upon us to make the nervy, anticipation-filled journey to the capital, and that’s got anyone of the red and white persuasion a little giddy, and either strangely confident, full of dread, or of course, a bit of both. For me though, my hopes of the upcoming trip to Wembley have an exceptionally low bar to beat when it comes to standards, and not necessarily just for the footballing reasons we may expect – please, strap yourselves in.
I have been to Wembley three times for footballing reasons (plus once to watch Foo Fighters, which was a much more pleasant time for all), the first being the League Cup final against Manchester City, followed by the Checkatrade vs Portsmouth, and of course, the League One play-off final against Charlton in 2019.
It is the latter of these trips which has set the bar so low.
Let’s go back three years, first to that Checkatrade final, the weekend that everyone had a lovely old time – off on a jaunt to that massive stadium, taking in the incredible scenes of Trafalgar Square, belting out songs on Wembley Way and before the kickoff, the quality and drama of McGeady’s goals; although it was spoiled somewhat by the result, let’s be honest, no one really cared, as the competition is a farce. We all had a great time, and it felt like we’d let off some steam of the absolute dross and frustration of the previous few years of being a Sunderland fan.
So, jump forward six weeks, and we’ve managed to boot our season over the fence into the garden of the neighbour who always parks in your space and who you long suspect is behind complaining about the smoke made by your log burner – yes, it’s Charlton Athletic at Wembley in the playoffs.
The fans were largely drained of optimism due to our spectacular capitulation in the final weeks of the season, and arguably fatigued from their recent reminder that we hadn’t won at Wembley in seven straight attempts since the 1973 cup win, as well as the novelty perhaps having faded a little having been there only weeks earlier. There was a sense of impending dread about the game, as the script had already been written – something dramatic was probably going to happen, it was undoubtedly going to happen in Charlton’s favour.
With that in mind, I’d decided that if I was to go to the game, I was going to do it as inexpensively as possible, seeing as I was still reeling from the cost of our lovely old time at the Daft Trophy Final. Seconds within the final whistle at Fratton Park, I’d booked myself onto a Megabus leaving Newcastle at 7am on the Saturday before the game. That journey was spent sat directly above the coach’s chemical toilet, which had a door that didn’t fully close and released frequent deadly wafts as we trundled our way down south. Sat to my right was a great big group of LadsLadsLads having a knees up, adding the stink of warm Stella to the already pungent atmosphere. Nine short hours later, I arrived at Victoria Station and staggered, gasping for air out into the streets of the Big Smoke.
Across the capital I went to meet the mate I’d be sharing a hotel room with (more on that later), which wasn’t a million miles away from Wembley, in Harrow. We got as far as Hammersmith tube station before we discovered that rest of the Piccadilly line was closed, so we’d have to jump on a replacement bus service for the remaining eight stops. Eight stops on a tube = about 5 minutes. Eight stops on a bus = longer than the lifespan of the average gerbil. All in, I estimate I spent around 12 hours of my day sat on a bus, wonderful times already.
Eventually, we reach our destination and jump off at Sudbury Hill, a tiny part of London that no tourists go to, and nobody outside of Sudbury Hill has likely ever heard of, and we make our way to the hotel. Now, remember when I said I was doing this on the cheap? That very much included the accommodation, which, on the off chance they take offence, I will not name, however, as a clue, it was a pub/hotel/hostel for daft lads and genuinely shared its name with an infamous house of ill repute which The Animals had sung about in 1964. £28 ALL IN for a shared room “in” London, bargain.
Into the hotel we go, and the staff (who were exceptionally friendly), were busy putting up the decorations for a kids birthday party in the function room area, it looked very much like just a normal, if old-fashioned pub. Now, I had my questions about the room, as it looked like it was only a double bed in a tiny hole in the wall, and both my mate and I are over 6ft tall, things would be tricky, so I asked the smiley chap behind the bar if they had anything else with a little more room we could take – ideally one with two single beds, or at least some floor space.
This chap smiled, knowingly, and proffered a key (and a tv remote – great) saying “We do have another room, but we don’t advertise it, it’s one we let guests put the kids in when they get tired at parties, but it has a bunk bed”. He gives us both keys and tells us to bring back the one we don’t want. Great, we’re in.
Through a doorway into an obviously recently redecorated staircase and hallway we go, and things look nice; bog-standard pub/hotel décor, nothing out of the ordinary. Then we turn a corner further down the corridor, through another doorway and suddenly the carpet is roughly 50 years older, and, tellingly, the screwed in numbers on the room doors have been replaced by A4 sheets of paper with the number scrawled on in biro. Alarm bells.
We reach the room I’d initially booked, open the door and it was indeed, just a double bed in a room smaller than your standard uni student digs, not even enough space to lie on the floor, not ideal. So on to the mystery room we go, it’s the last door in the corridor, and we’re immediately struck by the fact that said door is clearly not hanging on the top hinge, so one unlocked, we literally need to lift the door to get in. But it’s worth the wait, because behind that door was this:
Guantanamo-upon-Thames. The room used to hold the ovens, the walls were still coated with grease, or where there was no grease, there was a suspect-looking damp patch. There was, somewhat incredibly, a kettle provided, but it’s home was atop two mini radiators wedge in the back corner. The TV was hung on a bracket over the door and also acted as the only way to keep the incredibly heavy woollen curtains open, as they were draped over the top of a lovely late 1990s model box portable tv.
But, who cares, it’s cheap, we’re only going to be in the room for a few hours and most of those will be spent asleep and/or dead. We dump our bags, return the other room key to a now visibly delighted receptionist/barman and head back to the city centre, which meant another 90 minutes on the bus. A great time was had by all around Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square before we headed back and prayed for the best in our cell.
A slightly hungover morning was setup by my need to shower, having spent entirely too much time on buses the previous day, and the bathroom (shared) was another treat. A shower cubicle with no shower, and a bath with a shower head and no bracket to attach the shower head to, plus no curtain and a window (un-frosted) which looked directly into the block of flats literally feet across an alleyway. Great.
A greasy spoon breakfast and a bus replacement service journey later and all that nonsense is behind us, we’re on our way to Wembley.
The walk up Wembley Way is as full of trepidation as always, but spirits start to rise soon as we find the rest of the lads we go to the home games for and daft laughs are had by all. Now, for context, two of this lot are older lads (at the time, one is early 60s, the other early 70s), both accomplished drinkers and one (we’ll call him K), would often let us know it was customary for him to go through a “couple bottles of red” in a night over the weekend. K had already sunk 2-4 cans of San Miguel at this point, before remembering he didn’t like it, so ventured into the Co-Op and returned with a bottle of Argentinian red wine, down the hatch it went.
Little over an hour later, K, already wobbly at this point having just gotten off the coach from the trek down from Sunderland, has managed to nab a second bottle and is making good progress through it. But the time is now upon us to make the climb up the ramp to the turnstiles and to our seats. Previous experience tells us this is a 10 minute job, however, the red wine had other ideas and K is worse for wear almost immediately upon getting through the security barrier at the bottom of the ramp. The journey takes around 25 minutes, K makes a couple of stumbles and is literally being hoisted along by a mixture of us by the time we get to the turnstile.
Kickoff is now a mere 10 minutes away, our colleague is visibly too far gone and the chances of him making it through the turnstile without disaster are slim to none, but we have a plan. My mate will go through first, K will be pushed through second, into the arms of the first, and I’ll follow so we can get him to our seats and get on with the match. Naturally, what actually happened was that upon my mate getting through the turnstile, he was called over by security at the precise moment K clicked through the turnstile. This meant that both my mate and I were equidistant and at the perfect distance to watch as K staggered through, lost balance and toppled over backwards, his head narrowly missing one of those giant metal bolts in the stadium floor.
The paramedics are called, K is ultimately fine, but needs to be taken for treatment, and the second he’s lowered into a precautionary wheelchair, we hear a massive cheer as Charlton score an own goal. We’ve missed the start of, and what would end up being the only positive point of the match for Sunderland. We make it to our seats and watch in abject resignation as the inevitable defeat ultimately unfolds, thank you Patrick Bauer.
After the match, we make our way out the ground, part ways with the older gents (K is nowhere to be found, but made it back safe and sound) and head back to the city. I’m stuck on the tube next to an irritatingly jovial Charlton fan telling a little girl it’s “back to the glory days for us, like when Luke Young and Paul Konchesky were here”. Arguably the worst possible sentence to hear.
I have a 7 hour wait in the city before my Megabus chariot is due at Victoria, so by the evening I decide to head back to Trafalgar Square, thinking there might be another big party going on, what with the Derby vs Villa playoff being the next day. Not a soul was there, so I trumped off to the coach station to wait instead. Eventually, I’m sat on the coach, due to leave 10 minutes ago, and the last empty seat is the one next to me, perhaps my luck has turned? Don’t be silly, rather than leave, the bus waits just long enough for one more passenger to jump on, dressed in Captain Marvel gear and stinking of Comicon – they sit next to me and immediately fall asleep.
I can’t sleep on coaches, so what follows is nine and a half hours of me having my skull rattled on the window of the bus, taking in the sights of every town in the Midlands and Yorkshire before we reach Sunderland. Everyone gets off at Park Lane, everyone, that is, apart from my neighbour. We’re literally the only two left on the coach bound for Newcastle, and they do not budge. So the last 25 minutes of the journey is now slightly sinister, as we’re essentially being chauffeured in a massive taxi. Finally, we arrive at Newcastle, I depart and scamper away as quickly as possible before Captain Marvel finds out where I live.
What a truly terrible, but definitely memorable time I had at Wembley in 2019. And that is precisely why I intend on enjoying this coming weekend. I will be on the train both ways, and I’m staying in a hotel which has had more guests than police incidents, and, while we can always rely on Sunderland to throw it all away, I’m confident for the match.
Ha’way lads, let’s make this one a nice, boring routine win and a happy, bouncing journey back home.