Charlton v Sunderland 1998: The greatest play-off final ever?

By Rob StevensBBC Sport
Charlton celebrate their promotion to the Premier League
Charlton won what remains the highest-scoring play-off final to date on penalties
League One play-off final: Charlton Athletic v Sunderland
Venue: Wembley Date: Sunday, 26 May Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Commentary on BBC local radio, plus live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app
Follow live text coverage from 14:00 BST on Sunday

"I'm not religious, but I did have a little moment where I said 'if there is anybody up there, please let this go in'."

Charlton Athletic and Sunderland meet in the League One play-off final on Sunday, a match-up which brings back memories of a Wembley classic.

The Addicks and the Black Cats shared eight goals on a sunny May day in 1998 in the Division One (second tier) play-off final, with Charlton striker Clive Mendonca scoring a hat-trick in a stunning 4-4 draw.

Penalties were needed after 120 minutes failed to separate the sides, and an epic shootout which went to sudden death unfolded in the shadow of the twin towers at the old national stadium.

Here, players and fans reminisce about the conclusion to arguably the best play-off final in English Football League history.

A test of nerve

Serbia and Montenegro international Sasa Ilic is in goal for Charlton, with Frenchman Lionel Perez between the sticks for the Black Cats.

Charlton start the penalty shootout, with the spot-kicks at the Sunderland end of the ground, and Mendonca puts the Addicks ahead.

Sunderland are without two of their first-choice penalty takers, Kevin Phillips and Lee Clark, as they have both been substituted because of injury.

Charlton striker Clive Mendonca celebrates scoring a penalty in the shoot-out against Sunderland after the 1998 Division One play-off final
Charlton's hat-trick hero Clive Mendonca - a Sunderland fan - put his side ahead in the penalty shootout

Sasa Ilic: "Nothing can prepare players for the walk from halfway line to the penalty spot. To convert you need supreme amounts of confidence and nerves of steel.

"For a goalkeeper, you are in a win-win situation. If you do end up making a save then you are the hero."

Lee Clark: "You can do everything you want on the training ground to replicate things that are going to happen in a match, but you can't replicate taking penalties at a full Wembley."

Defender Steve Brown stepped forward for Charlton's second penalty: "The things that go through your head are just horrendous. Indecision is the worst thing.

"I'm not religious, but I did have a little moment where I said 'if there is anybody up there, please let this go in'. It went higher than I anticipated and into the roof of the net.

"You jog back to the halfway line and in a moment of pure selfishness you don't care about anyone else because you haven't missed."

Charlton left-back Mark Bowen takes his side's fifth penalty with the scores at 4-4: "The first thing I thought as I walked to the penalty spot was 'Mark, don't miss this because if you do it's the only thing your kids will remember [of your career]'.

"All I was concerned about was that if I missed it the goalkeeper was going to have to save it because I was going to hit it as hard and powerfully on target as I can and that's what I tried to do."

Sunderland striker Niall Quinn is up with the score 6-5 to Charlton: "I ended up going sixth, which was actually about ninth in the reality in how we had practiced.

"I didn't hit and hope but I did have a little look in the corner of my eye and saw Ilic's first move. I knew as soon as I kicked it that he went the wrong way.

"As I walked back up and all the fans were cheering this rush of relief came down my body. I'll never forget it because it was a strange thing to happen and I thought 'imagine if I had missed that'."

The defining moment

A young Sunderland fan crosses her fingers before the penalty shoot-out
Fans were left crossing their fingers during the shoot-out

Thirteen spot-kicks have been taken - all scored. Charlton lead 7-6 and Sunderland left-back Michael Gray is next in line...

Michael Gray: "I am a local boy and did not want to take one. I said that all along.

"It is the quietest, longest walk of your life with the pressure and everything that is going through your mind."

Bowen: "You look at Micky Gray's body language - and I have never spoke to him about this - but he looked like he was nervous to be taking that sudden-death penalty."

Gray: "I didn't make great contact with the penalty. As soon as I hit the ball I saw Ilic dive across to the left hand side and I knew he was saving it. The feeling after that, you just want the ground to swallow you up."

Ilic: "Michael didn't really strike it that hard. Before I even caught the ball I knew I was going to save it.

"It wasn't the best of penalties, but if I'd dived the other way it would have been a great penalty."

Sunderland striker Kevin Phillips: "The quality of the penalties was very high but at some point someone was going to miss. Unfortunately it was someone from our side and it happened for Micky that day."

Charlton keeper Sasa Ilic races out of his goal after saving Michael Gray's penalty
Charlton keeper Sasa Ilic dived to his left to make the crucial save from Michael Gray

The fan reaction

Charlton fan Pete Finch: "The penalties were at the other end to us and it was difficult so you were just waiting for a roar. It was really strange.

"When Sasa saved, it took a couple of seconds to realise it. Then there was pandemonium, uproar and tears."

Sunderland fan Michael Hanratty: "Everything about his run-up told you Michael Gray was going to miss. He looked like he was beaten before he even kicked the ball. It was utter dejection."

Sunderland supporter Clive Dent: "It was just so soul-destroying. On the supporter bus on the way back after the game everyone was down in the dumps. We just had to pick our heads up off the floor."

A rollercoaster match

Rewind over two hours to kick-off and few would have envisaged the game unfolding into a 4-4 draw.

Charlton had kept 10 clean sheets in 11 games leading up to the final, while Sunderland had finished third in the table, missing out on automatic promotion and an immediate return to the top flight by a point.

The first half only saw one goal - a 23rd-minute strike by Mendonca - which put Charlton 1-0 up at the break.

Ilic: "At half-time it felt like another day at the office. We didn't really feel like we were going to concede a goal. We felt comfortable and everything looked perfect."

Phillips: "Peter Reid [Sunderland manager] had his say at half-time, he had to be calm and not get too emotional because of the occasion.

"We talked about tactics and upping the tempo a bit and keeping possession a bit more and obviously taking our chances to attack when we had them. It was only half-time so we didn't press the panic button."

In a frantic second half, goals from Quinn and Phillips put the Black Cats ahead, but Mendonca equalised to make it 2-2 in the 71st minute.

Two minutes later Quinn got his second to put Sunderland back in front again.

But, in the 85th minute, Black Cats keeper Perez came to claim a corner and failed to reach the ball. Richard Rufus headed into the middle of an unguarded net to make it 3-3, sending the game to extra time.

Niall Quinn celebrates making it 3-2 to Sunderland
Republic of Ireland international Niall Quinn netted twice for Sunderland in the second half

Phillips: "It was great to get the second goal to put us in front and things were going well. You're thinking 'can we hang on or can we get the third goal?'"

Sunderland fan Dent: "When we went in front the second time I thought that was game over. With Quinny and Phillips... you'll never get another pairing like that at Sunderland. It was one of the best teams we had had for a long time."

Quinn: "If a goalkeeper shouts and comes for a corner, I used to have this habit of dropping back on the line. He came a long way but he didn't shout.

"Had I known Lionel Perez was coming for it I'd have gone back onto the line, I know I would. We sat there and thought how have we let that in?"

Phillips: "I had to come off [after 73 minutes] and sit there like every other Sunderland member of staff and fan with everything crossed.

"I was moaning about our defenders because I felt we could have done more. It was frustrating not being able to affect anything on the pitch."

Brown: "At that point there is no way anyone in the stadium can know which way the game is going, us included. You are living on your wits at that point."

Extra time brings more goals

Nicky Summerbee made it 4-3 to Sunderland in extra time but Charlton found an answer again through Mendonca, who completed his hat-trick and set up penalties.

Clark: "The game swung from end to end. When we were 4-3 up in extra time you think you have done it."

Charlton fan Finch: "When they scored the fourth goal, I genuinely believed that was it."

Bowen: "Clive had all the talent as a natural goalscorer.

"He was one of the best finishers I ever played with. He had a unique knack of knowing where the goal was."

Sunderland fan Dent: "I have never seen a game like it at Wembley. I don't think you'll see a game like that again. It was so entertaining. End-to-end stuff."

What happened next

Clark: "None of us in the dressing room held Michael accountable. He is remembered as the man who missed the penalty in what has been classed as the most famous game in the history of the play-offs.

"We rallied round him for four or five days. It was important everyone got around Michael to keep his spirits up.

Quinn: "Very quickly we got together in the dressing room and put it to each other that we would return bigger and better next year."

Sunderland striker Niall Quinn comforts Michael Gray after his penalty miss
Quinn was among the first to console Michael Gray following his penalty miss

Sunderland went on to win the Division One title in 1998-99, with a record 105 points, while Charlton were relegated from the top flight that season.

Phillips: "In hindsight it was the best thing that happened to us, as bizarre as that sounds.

"We weren't geared for the Premier League. We perhaps needed another season in Division One to allow the younger lads in the squad to get used to playing for such a big club and we absolutely romped the league the next season."

Both clubs did go on to establish themselves in the Premier League, with Charlton enjoying seven seasons there before being relegated in 2007.

Sunderland spent 15 out of 18 seasons in the top flight before back-to-back relegations saw them drop into League One last summer.

Only one club can return to the Championship at the rebuilt Wembley on Sunday - but it will take something special to come close to the drama of 21 years ago.

Sasa Ilic was talking to BBC Radio London's Phil Parry, Michael Gray was talking to BBC Sport's Kate McKenna and Lee Clark was talking to BBC Look North's Dawn Thewlis.

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