Football stirs the same emotions in all of us. Joy and despair, fragile optimism and resigned acceptance. Yet it’s how we manage these feelings that shapes our relationship with the game.
As a youngster, football was my master. All I wanted in the world was to see my team, Charlton Athletic, walk out at Wembley Stadium, and also, if it wasn’t too much trouble, to see us play in the Premier League. Both always seemed improbable, and yet, remarkably, on one heady late-spring day in 1998, via the Division One play-off final against Sunderland, I was offered one and the tantalising prospect of the other.
I recall the first half of that final speeding by like a game of Fifa. Our moment, and the first innocent mutation of hope to expectation, came in the 23rd minute, Clive Mendonca turning Jody Craddock and firing coolly past Lionel Pérez.
Ah, Sir Clive of Wearside. With that sinewy body, that perfect balance so often the preserve of those with a low-centre of gravity, and a dead-eyed cool in front of goal, he was unlike any striker I’d seen in a Charlton shirt. Players such as Shaun Newton and John Robinson, Steve Brown and Richard Rufus, were my idols, but Mendonca and skipper Mark Kinsella were my true articles of faith. With them, the Premier League really was possible; in fact, it was perhaps only 45 minutes away.
Within 13 minutes of the restart, a bullet header from Niall Quinn and a lob from Kevin Phillips had made a mockery of my hubris. Yet Charlton rediscovered their poise and my dad and I gradually began to believe once more. A soap bubble pass from Keith Jones and Mendonca was away. One touch to bring it under his spell, another to steady himself, then an ice-cool tuck past Pérez. Cue delirium.
Two minutes later, Danny Mills was caught under a loopy cross, Quinn cushioned and smashed home. Two bloody minutes. We had it all to do again.
This time, we didn’t really believe. Sunderland, the bigger and more ambitious club, were surely destined to claim their place in the Promised Land. Yet, as the saying goes, size matters not if you have Pérez in goal. With just five minutes remaining, a Robinson corner had the bleach-blond Frenchman charging headlong into his own defender, then watching impotently as Rufus, of all people, guided a header into the empty net.
Extra time was the kind of open, unstructured affair you often see when so much energy and emotion has been spent, yet so much remains at stake. Charlton seemed out on their feet. On 99 minutes, Nicky Summerbee lashed home for 4-3. Surely this was it. No coming back now.
Charlton were now committing players forward with abandon. Sensing the kill, Sunderland broke with Steve Brown the only covering defender. Brown suddenly turned into Bobby Moore. An all-or-nothing tackle and a moment of vision released Jones, who fired a missile across the six-yard box. In one movement Mendonca somehow killed it, swivelled and planted a volley past Pérez. Delirium? Yes. Disbelief? Certainly. One of the greatest ever Wembley hat-tricks? Unquestionably.
It was 4-4 and so to penalties, which famously ended 7-6 and with an ashen-faced Michael Gray. The most dramatic of endings suitably inscribed into play-off folklore.
For a while afterwards it really did seem a denial of destiny, an unsolicited disturbance in the footballing Force. The following season, Sunderland cruised to the First Division title while Charlton succumbed to a painful final-day relegation. Since then the fortunes of both clubs have almost mirrored one another, with years of engorgement at the top table followed by a similar period of complacency and mismanagement.
Last season saw the rematch, 21 years on, as both clubs sought a way out of football’s third tier. Patrick Bauer’s scruffy last-gasp winner for Charlton was perhaps emblematic of what is a shabby, forgettable era for these two fine clubs.
But for me, football isn’t about eras; they belong to statisticians and teams that actually win things. It’s about moments in time. It’s those that we cling to; it’s those that make all the suffering worthwhile.