One of the joys of football is its transience. There is always another match, always the prospect of elation to overshadow the previous week’s disappointment. In short, most games only stay in the mind until the next one kicks off.
But some are forever etched in a club’s legacy. For the perennially successful, these games are many. But for most, they are mere fragments in a football fan’s life.
For Charlton fans, the game that is most regularly talked of as their greatest may also be one of the best ever seen at the home of English football; Wembley in its previous guise, less shiny but no less special.
On Monday May 25th 1998, Charlton and Sunderland played each other for a place in the Premiership.
The Addicks were coming off the back of an outstanding end to the season, where eight wins from their last nine First Division games saw them finish fourth; while the Black Cats had finished one place and two points better off.
In the league there had been little to separate them, and as they would prove over 120 minutes and then penalties, there was little to separate them in the play-off final, either.
With Charlton leading 1-0 at half-time, few would have predicted what followed. But when the full-time whistle blew, the game was 3-3. A brace from Niall Quinn and one from Kevin Phillips were cancelled out by a second from boyhood Sunderland fan Clive Mendonca and defender Richard Rufus’s first senior goal to level the game in the 85th minute.
It was a match with no time to contemplate the maybes induced by such occasions. The fans simply watched, and hoped.
Nicky Summerbee scored a fourth for Sunderland on 99 minutes, before Mendonca completed his hat-trick four minutes later. And in the midst of such things, I wonder how the fans felt, if anyone truly enjoyed what they were watching, if they realised at the time that it may never be bettered, certainly in spectacle if not – for one team at least – in the end result.
With the score at 4-4 after extra time, the match went to a penalty shoot-out that proved just as exciting as the previous 120 minutes. The first 13 penalties were successfully converted, before Michael Gray saw his attempt saved by Charlton ‘keeper Sasa Ilic, who started the season playing non-league football and ended it with promotion to the top flight.
It was the match that really did have everything. And whether or not it was Wembley’s greatest ever game, for one club at least it was a defining moment.
In time, Charlton would establish themselves in the division they had fought so hard to reach. It would take a couple more years, but Alan Curbishley’s team would ultimately solidify their status as a top flight club. It was a legacy that was built on moments both big and small.
One of the biggest being that day at Wembley, when two clubs put on a show rarely bettered. It was a shame only one of them could win.
image: © Ewan-M