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Sunderland Andy Dawson

Hope and loss – Sunderland at Wembley, 1998

By Andy Dawson

As we pulled up outside Noel’s house he emerged from his front door, proudly striding towards the car with a red and white Afro wig fixed on his head. This was unexpected and bit out of step with the rest of us. We don’t even do that whole ‘wearing colours’ thing, so the wig jarred a bit.

But it was a special occasion – we were headed to Wembley for the 1998 First Division play-off final between our Sunderland and Charlton Athletic, so the wig was allowable. There were five of us in the car and within a couple of minutes of Noel getting in, the Radio 2 pips announced that it was 6am – this seemed as good a cue as any for the first cans of mid-strength lager to be cracked open.

Somehow, just three hours later, we were in London, heading towards Swiss Cottage. I can only remember us being overtaken twice and my sums tell me that our unblinking driver averaged a steady 90mph all the way. Ignore this information if you’re an officer of the law.

After taking a further 40 minutes to crawl from the end of the M1 towards Swiss Cottage and finding somewhere to park up, the boozing continued for a good few hours in the blazing May sunshine, before we made the short trek to Wembley.

Optimism reigned supreme, the Achilles heel of every football fan in a crucial situation such as this one. Sunderland had ended the season strongly, the goals of Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips barreling us to within a point of automatic promotion. It wasn’t quite enough, but never mind – we’d do it in style, the Wembley way.

The game itself has been written about so many times elsewhere and recalling it now is like looking back at some kind of fevered hallucination. According to some, it was Wembley’s greatest ever match, ending 4-4 after extra time and with Charlton winning 7-6 in the subsequent penalty shoot-out.

Weirdly, as a group, our instinct was to head out of the ground as soon as Michael Gray’s crucial spot kick was saved and the match was lost. It didn’t occur to us that there would be a mournful lap of honour from the players, and that the majority of our fellow Sunderland fans would hang back to show their appreciation. It was over and we were gone.

There were just a handful of Sunderland supporters on the tube, with silent seething and head-shaking all we had to offer instead of words. We’d come so close to promotion and now we were heading home with nothing.

Back at Swiss Cottage, we trudged down the ramp into the underground car park. Noel took his red and white wig (which he’d been carrying rather than wearing ever since we’d marched out of Wembley) and dumped it into the nearest bin. Closure.

Eventually, after we’d got back into the car and started the journey home, our stunned, angry silence dissipated and the craic returned. It was just a game, we'd had a hell of a day out, and we knew we’d be back in the promotion hunt the following season.

We were right – Sunderland blitzed the First Division that following year, losing just three times in 46 matches and notching a record 105 points.

We’re off to Wembley again in a few days time, to face Manchester City in the cumbersomely-named Capital One Cup Final; the first time Sunderland will have been at Wembley since that sorry day in 1998. But Noel won’t be with us this time. He died in 2012, aged 43, two years to the day that I write this.

The second anniversary of his funeral falls on the day of the cup final, and just like our Wembley trip of 1998, the plan is to set off at 6am. We’ll be listening for the pips and cracking open a drink in his memory.

Andy Dawson

Andy is a TV critic for The Mirror and one of the funniest people on Twitter. He swears a lot which in my eyes makes him even funnier, you should follow him.

Follow Andy on Twitter @profanityswan

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2 Comments

Noel had a similar "affro" incident on his stag night in Dublin. He thought it was a great idea to get his face painted green as it was St Patrick's Day. This was probably in the spirit of things as he was mid-carnival in O'Connell St but when we met up with him later in the pub with no-one else similarly attired, we did point out the error of his ways. RIP

– Sean Collier, February 23 2014 at 11:55

There is a light that never goes out

– simon kennedy, March 3 2014 at 20:29

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