In 1990, Sunderland qualified for the Play-Offs with promotion to Division One at stake. As luck would have it, they were pitched in with Newcastle in the semi-final.
With the first leg at Roker Park drifting towards a goalless draw, Sunderland were awarded a penalty deep into injury time. Paul Hardyman, described in the commentary as “the penalty king”, stepped up to take it but was foiled by veteran keeper John Burridge, who dived to his right and managed to gather in the ball before Hardyman could get to the rebound.
To compound Hardyman’s misery he kicked out in frustration as Burridge collected the ball and ended up being sent off in what proved to be the last meaningful action of the match. It would be difficult to imagine a more complete reversal of fortunes as Hardyman’s in that fateful minute – from potential hero to being dismissed and suspended for the second leg and becoming an absolute zero. So the momentum of the tie seemed to have switched in that moment, with Newcastle fully expected to finish the job at St. James’s Park.
Martyn McFadden, editor of the long-running Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme, recalled the second leg being played in “the most bitter and hostile atmosphere” which spilled over into massed pitch invasions holding up play as Sunderland turned the tables, winning 2-0 through goals from Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates. It was to prove to be Sunderland’s sweetest Play-Offs victory.
Wembley beckoned but after the joy of beating their fiercest rivals, Gary Bennett was at the centre of the drama when Sunderland met Swindon in the Final. The only goal came from an Alan McLoughlin shot that took a wicked deflection off Bennett, leaving the goalkeeper, Tony Norman, stranded.
Little did Bennett know that his misfortune on the pitch and the match itself was to be superseded by the legal action off it and Sunderland crept back to the top flight courtesy of a disciplinary committee ruling as opposed to anything achieved on the field of play.
When the die was cast for Swindon and their promotion was blocked, Newcastle put forward the case for replacing them rather than Sunderland, having finished third in the league. That was rejected and finally after much prevarication and protracted discussion, Sunderland were promoted on the back of that loss.
Understandably perhaps, following such a convoluted and underserved route, Sunderland were relegated the following season. So the only time Sunderland gained promotion through the Play-Offs, in that irregular manner, they were relegated, whereas the three times they failed they have gone up as clear champions the next year. Proof that the idea of the Play-Offs being a poisoned chalice certainly has some credence as far as Sunderland are concerned.
Talking of poisoned chalices, Michael Gray has probably held the most poisoned of all for many years now and it is one that still affects him as he is reminded of “that bloody penalty” every time he meets a Sunderland fan, even nowadays, almost twenty years later. By the time of Sunderland’s next tilt at the Play-Offs in 1998, Bennett had finished his career but he would have undoubtedly suffered along with all fellow Black Cats through the agony of their defeat to Charlton – another pulsating match that ended 4-4 after extra time.
Who else but a lifelong Sunderland fan would break their hearts, as Clive Mendonca scored the first Wembley Play-Offs hat-trick for Charlton. To add fuel to an already raging fire of emotion, the match then developed into one of the most dramatic penalty shoot-outs. Michael Gray took the role of pantomime villain when he feebly stroked his penalty into the waiting arms of Sasa Ilic.
The weakness of the penalty was exacerbated by the fact that, unusually, the first thirteen had all been converted and that Mendonca, the man who grew up on the same council estate as Gray, had slotted the first penalty home with aplomb.
Naturally in the penalty shoot-out Mendonca took the first penalty and scored whereas Gray took the last one and, of course, failed. Cheek by jowl, Gray and Mendonca were so close to each other that the comparison was etched large enough for all to see.
As ever, Sunderland, and Michael Gray in particular, responded in the only way they know how and absolutely romped the division the following season with an impressive 105 points, eighteen points clear of second-placed Bradford. Meanwhile, Mendonca’s Charlton were relegated.
The Agony & The Ecstasy: A Comprehensive History of the Football League Play-Offs by Richard Foster is available now in paperback through usual outlets and directly from Ockley Books