The Premiership beckoned for Charlton Athletic or Sunderland in a match that is widely regarded as the finest in the history of the great Wembley Stadium. A tremendous thriller in a Playoff final between the South London team and the Tyneside outfit has etched itself into folklore as one of the classic matches in the rich history of English football.
Monday 25th May 1998. The sun reflects over a colourful 77,000 capacity crowd prepared to witness a turbulent match of football that would decide which team would get promoted to the Premiership.
It began quite a cagey affair, the two sides desperately trying to avoid a defeat that would be costly to whoever walked away as losers. Promotion and £9.85 million in TV Rights awaited the victors, and so the hesitance of the two teams in the opening minutes emphasised what was at stake.
Charlton slowly began to gain control of the match. But a corner at the other end nearly gave Sunderland the lead. A header from their unmarked captain from the centre of the box flew just over the crossbar. Sunderland began to threaten.
The Addicks early domination was too much for Sunderland to contain, and the equalising goal came courtesy of a sublime finish from their prolific marksman Clive Mendonca. The red half of the stand erupted with uncontainable joy after a nervy 23 minutes.
Sunderland fought back and almost immediately began creating chances to attempt to level the game to counter Charlton's opportunities. Half time, 1-0, and the Charlton fans shook the terraces as they sang all the way through the 15 minute break. But Sunderland had finished the half the better of both teams and their fans where silently optimistic; subdued and thoughtful as they waited for the teams to re-emerge.
The second half began and Sunderland carried their determination through the break to earn a hard earned equaliser. It come through Niall Quinn, who lost his marker in the box to head the ball low into the back of the net. The Charlton faithful were silenced.
Sunderland were back in the game, fresh start, clean slate.
The contest was even. The intensity of chanting increased in the stands and the tempo of the game increased. A brilliantly constructed Charlton free-kick almost immediately put the Addicks back in front. A confused Sunderland back four recovered, but looked far from solid as they were continually getting caught on the counter attack.
But the momentum stayed with Sunderland. A chipped through ball over the Charlton defence opened up Charlton and let Kevin Phillips in, who stabbed the ball past the on rushing and helpless 'keeper.
2-1 to Sunderland, and Charlton fans where silenced once more. The Sunderland following erupted at the realisation the pendulum had just swung their way.
Charlton manager Alan Curbishley calmly reacted tactically by making some substitutions. A lobbed ball into Charlton front man Mendonca was instantly controlled with his first touch and then taken away from the diving defender as he sprinted for the goal. The keeper covered his post, but he wasn't ready and Mendonca lashed the ball past him into the net.
2-2. All witnessing knew they were in for a classic match by this point.
The game finished 4-4 in normal time after a superb Mendonca hat-trick which lit up a spectacular game. Penalties were going to settle it and the tension was unbearable, terrible for all watching, worse for those playing.
Every single spot kick went in and it was 7-6 when Michael Gray stepped up to level it for Sunderland and keep them in the tie. The spot kick was saved by Charlton's man of the hour Sasa Ilic, who had been playing non-League football only a season before.
Sunderland sank, Charlton were victorious. The pendulum had swung once more and a jubilant set of supporters erupted into ecstasy. Even amidst the celebrations the penny hadn't dropped.
Charlton Athletic were going to the Premiership for the first time ever. Sunderland had played their part in an epic contest, but the day belonged to the South London team who had not only participated in one of the greatest Playoff finals in history, but one of the greatest games ever seen at Wembley Stadium.
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