Sunderland and Charlton are no strangers to the playoffs with both having tasted agony and ecstasy in the three decades or so since their existence; but on May 25, 1998, they combined to bring us one of the most memorable matches since the post-season lottery was introduced.
Sunderland had beaten Sheffield United 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-final to advance to the Wembley showpiece after finishing third in the table, while Charlton overcame Ipswich Town who had finished fourth in the league some five points behind them.
Many people had fancied Peter Reid’s side to go up automatically having been the top goal scorers in the division and the real entertainers throughout much of that campaign, netting 86 times in 46 matches thanks to the potent strike partnership of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips.
A poor start to the season in their new home, the Stadium of Light however, had seen Sunderland lose three of their first four games but a run of seven wins from eight matches around Christmas looked to have set them on their way back to the top-flight for the first time since 1990, only for a 2-0 defeat at Ipswich in their penultimate game to rob them of automatic promotion by a single point.
Charlton had also come into the playoffs on a superb streak as they won eight of their last nine games to finish a comfortable fourth-position and just three points off the promotion places themselves and they maintained that magnificent momentum by beating Ipswich Town 2-0 on aggregate to secure their place at Wembley.
So as the two sides made their way out in front of the famous old Twin Towers it was Sunderland who were well-fancied to continue their solid league form and gain promotion via the backdoor route that the playoffs provided; though nobody could have anticipated what was about to unfold on that spring day at Wembley.
After a somewhat cagey first 20 minutes it was Sunderland-born striker Clive Mendonca who opened the scoring for Charlton as he turned his marker and casually slotted the ball home to put Alan Curbishley’s men in the driving seat; but their lead didn’t last long courtesy of the ever-dangerous tandem of Quinn and Phillips.
Quinn equalised five minutes after half time and Phillips added a second eight minutes later with his 35th goal of the season to turn the tables and ensure the initiative was firmly back with Sunderland, though if anything, the quickfire turnaround sparked Charlton back into life rather than dampen their spirits.
A magnificent second goal from Mendonca brought The Addicks level once more, only for Quinn to score again with Sunderland’s first attack after the restart, but with the Black Cats seemingly on their way to the Premier League, Richard Rufus equalised for Charlton with five minutes left to take the game into extra time.
Once more Sunderland took the lead, this time through Nicky Summerbee, but Charlton refused to be beaten with Clive Mendonca completing his hat-trick with just under 15 minutes to go; meaning penalties would decide the outcome.
The shootout resembled the game itself with the first ten spot kicks being confidently converted as the contest went into sudden death and the tension on the pitch and around the stadium became unbearable.
Charlton’s John Robinson and Sunderland’s Niall Quinn both converted their penalties, but after Shaun Newton had scored for Athletic the pressure was on local lad and lifetime Sunderland fan Michael Gray to keep his side in it.
But a weak effort was saved easily by Sasa Ilić, who quickly vanished beneath a pile of his delirious team-mates as they rushed from the halfway line to congratulate their hero who had almost single handedly taken them into the Premier League for the first time.
“I really didn’t want to take one, it was something I just didn’t want to do,” Gray later explain. “I was a Sunderland boy, living the dream playing for my local team, and I just didn’t want to be the person responsible for us losing such an important match.”
Though scant consolation at the time Gray had played a significant part in one of the most memorable and exciting playoff finals ever; a game which finished 3-3 after 90 minutes, 4-4 after extra time - before Charlton’s promotion was finally decided 7-6 on penalties in one of the greatest encounters ever witnessed at the famous old ground.
Just a couple of weeks later the paths of two men who had featured so heavily in one of the games of the century, and had even gone to the same Sunderland school as youngsters, would cross once again in even more bizarre fashion.
“I was on holiday in Ayia Napa,” Charlton hero Clive Mendonca told the Evening Standard. “I was sitting by the pool with my wife and went off to the toilet. Who comes out as I was going in? Michael Gray! He shook his head and said, ‘You are the last person that I want to see!’”