What it's like to lose the most iconic play-off final in history
Former Sunderland defender Darren Williams talks about that penalty and defending against Clive Mendonca at Wembley in 1998.
Twenty-one years later, it remains the most iconic and enthralling play-off final in Football League history.
Charlton and Sunderland’s 4-4 draw on 25 May 1998 rubbished the idea that high-stakes games had to be low-scoring affairs, and brought the Division One season to a close with the most dramatic climax.
It’s lauded by Charlton fans as ‘The Clive Mendonca final’ after their 25-goal striker netted a hat trick against the club he had supported as a boy.
It’s lamented by Sunderland fans for that penalty, after Michael Gray’s limp effort was easily stopped by Sasa Ilic.
Yet it’s remembered by everybody as an absolute classic.
But what was it like to play in?
“It was amazing, you’re just proud to have been involved in the game,” says Darren Williams, who started at centre back for Sunderland and played the entire 120 minutes.
Williams was born in Middlesbrough and racked up 200 league appearances during eight years on Wearside.
“It was fantastic to represent Sunderland at Wembley as a local lad. It was something that you’ll never forget, regardless of the result.”
The Black Cats had finished third that season with 90 points, just one behind second-placed Middlesbrough who went up automatically.
They then beat Sheffield United 3-2 on aggregate in their play-off semi-final, coming back from 2-1 down after the first leg, to make it to Wembley.
“Initially, it’s probably not a day that we wanted because we felt that we could make automatic promotion,” says Williams, who now helps develop young players at i2i Football Academy in York.
“But we had massive confidence that we’d go on and do extremely well.”
Having qualified for the final, both players and fans had to wait 12 days before descending on the capital, though for Williams it felt much longer.
“It seemed like forever,” he says.
“The hype from the Sunderland fans was building and building, and by the end of it the town was just buzzing.
“Wherever you went, there were flags and people encouraging you and cheering you on.
“Even when we went to training, there were people packed outside the training ground wanting to see us.”
When the day finally arrived, the Sunderland players had all the encouragement they needed among a crowd of 77,739.
“It was like something you watch on the telly. It was just surreal, it was unreal,” says Williams.
“You turn up at the stadium, see the fans there and you just knew what a massive occasion it was.”
The first half was surprisingly tame, with Mendonca, who now works in a Nissan factory on Wearside, supplying the only moment of note after 23 minutes.
The Charlton forward produced a sumptuous flick to turn past Williams’ defensive partner Jody Craddock before stroking the ball past Frenchman Lionel Perez to open the scoring.
What followed was an almighty back and forth played out in draining conditions, which weren’t helped by Sunderland’s wardrobe choices.
“It was a blistering hot day. I think it was somewhere between 102 and 105 degrees pitchside,” says Williams.
“We wore our gold third strip, which had an inner-lining as well as the exterior material and it felt like a suit of armour.”
Such discomfort didn’t stop Niall Quinn from squeezing in a header at the near post five minutes into the second half before Kevin Phillips lobbed Ilic eight minutes later to put Sunderland ahead.
Charlton then equalised in the 71st minute through another Mendonca goal, after the striker had latched onto a long ball and burst past Williams.
“Daft things happen,” says the former defender on his failure to keep his fellow north-easterner quiet.
“Clive was a clever player and he found space if you allowed him to find that space. Unfortunately, there were a couple of occasions where we did.
“Because the game was played at such a frantic pace, the gameplan probably went out of the window.
“But it was winner takes all and we were just at each other.”
Another Quinn goal followed two minutes later, but Richard Rufus’ header on 85 minutes ensured that the mayhem would continue into extra time.
Goals from Nicky Summerbee and Mendonca, obviously, followed to force penalties, and Williams felt confident going into the shoot-out.
“I was happy to take a penalty and was down on the list to take one,” he says.
“I’m not a natural goalscorer and I’m not a natural penalty taker, but I think you mature and learn as a player if you put yourself in those situations.
“I believe I was supposed to be on the one that Micky Gray took.”
Gray, of course, took the decisive 14th penalty in the shoot-out, having watched 13 perfect efforts from 12 yards.
His run-up was surprisingly long given how tamely he hit the ball, as Ilic gleefully scooped it up and went charging towards his teammates.
“It was very quiet in the dressing room after the game,” says Williams.
“We were disappointed to have let the fans down and ourselves, as well. I think Micky felt it more than anybody.
“Nobody said a word for what seemed like 10 or 15 minutes, then big Niall Quinn stood up and came out with an unbelievable speech. It was a bit like Braveheart.
“We would have left Wembley and gone straight back to the training ground just to get started again after that. We wanted to right the wrongs.”
Quinn’s words clearly had an effect, as Sunderland went on to win the Division One title the following year with a then-record 105 points.
Both clubs get to do it all over again this season – the first time any play-off final has ever been repeated – with the prize this time being a place in the second tier.
It’s a game that Williams is confident his former side can win.
“I’ll be a little bit more relaxed if it goes to penalties this time,” he laughs.
“I know I definitely won’t be down to take one.”
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