The 5th of May, 1973. Second Division Sunderland 1-0 Don Revie’s Leeds United in the FA Cup Final. Sunderland’s last win at Wembley. A result that wasn’t meant to happen that has seemingly been paid for ever since. 48 years later, has our sentence finally been served?
Sunderland head back to football’s greatest stage this weekend looking to finally lay the Wembley demons to rest. Norwich, Swindon, Liverpool and one of the great play-off finals – a 4-4 draw culminating in penalty defeat to Charlton – at the Old Wembley preceded the sort of torture that leads you to believe in fate at the New.
Leading a star-studded Manchester City at half-time in the 2014 League Cup Final, dreaming of an upset until Yaya Toure scored the best goal I have ever seen live to so nonchalantly break so many hearts. Most recently ahead in the League One play-off final through the sort of calamity own goal that makes you think it must be your day at last. Beaten in the 94th minute.
The first season of our League One odyssey had its fitting ending – play-off final heartbreak at the hands of Charlton Athletic. That was seven in a row. The sixth seems even more pertinent this weekend, as Sunderland return to Wembley’s most meaningless showpiece event, the Papa John’s Trophy Final.
Only had you been at Wembley on the 31st of March 2019 you would have struggled to see how anyone could see what was then the Chekatrade Trophy as a meaningless, obligatory footnote to the seasons of lower league clubs. Portsmouth and Sunderland drew the 2nd biggest crowd of any game in England that season – including three thousand more than saw Tottenham host Arsenal at Wembley in front of the Premier League’s biggest ever crowd.
As ever with Sunderland at Wembley, there was a story to be written. From the night before the game and the invasion of Trafalgar Square all the way through to Aiden McGeady’s 120th minute equaliser and then defeat on penalties, the weekend, the occasion, the game, were all simply unforgettable.
Regardless of how it ended, we left wondering just how many people would ever experience a last gasp goal at Wembley quite like that (apparently Charlton would, about 2 months later). Nonetheless, a brilliant advert, not for a competition killed by the inclusion of elite academies, in which most games before the final struggle to even attract 1,000 fans through the gates, but for two clubs pining for the better days their unwaveringly loyal fanbases unquestionably deserve.
The pain of the defeat didn’t linger long. After all, it was the Checkatrade Trophy, and both sides knew their fates would be intertwined for a couple more months yet, as both pursued the ultimate goal of promotion. However, it did add another chapter to the increasingly heavy volume of Sunderland defeats at Wembley.
This time, there is genuine belief in that volume being ready to be closed.
Sunday sees Sunderland face Tranmere Rovers of League Two in the Papa John’s Trophy Final – Sky Sports at 3pm to catch a pizza the action (sorry, couldn’t help myself). For once, the Black Cats head to Wembley in dream form.
Top of the League One form tables, spearheaded by a striker bettered only by Lewandowski for goals in 2021 and off the back of our most accomplished display of the season, the promotion charge, from nowhere, is very much on.
Meetings with what have become our sworn League One foe from the South Coast have taken on serious significance in all three League One campaigns. Tuesday’s win at Portsmouth was a remarkably professional dispatchment of a good side, albeit one struggling of late, providing the perfect tonic to October’s defeat on Wearside which sent our season flying off the rails.
It also featured yet another Charlie Wyke goal, and yet another Charlie Wyke header. Our number nine struggled in his first two seasons at the club, but Tuesday’s opener in front of the Fratton End was the big man’s 26th of a remarkable season, and stopping him is the puzzle Tranmere must solve before Sunday.
The solution for the puzzle is quite clear. Wyke’s goals come almost exclusively from crosses, so you need to stop the service. Which leads you to the trickiest puzzle in England’s lower leagues. The return of Aiden McGeady excited us all back in December, but even those of us bleary-eyed for our wing wizard’s contributions in our oh-so-nearly campaign of 2019 could not have foreseen the impact he would have.
At 34, he was surely too old, too slow, too finished to bounce back from his long exile under Phil Parkinson. Apparently not. The days of League One right-backs reconsidering their career choices have very much returned, and McGeady’s dogged determination to right some wrongs will be clear to see for all on Sunday. The star of the Portsmouth final, scorer of a wondrous free-kick and that late goal, will be looking for a medal for his efforts this time around.
Sunderland at Wembley would normally mean mass exodus from the North-East, with upwards of 40,000 people, but feeling like a whole city, descending on Wembley Way. This time, while we will be with them from our living rooms, we will still have our tickets.
Supporters have raised over £120,000 for North-East charities from buying commemorative tickets for a game they cannot attend – a simply astonishing amount of money showing once again the power of football to make real positive change in people’s lives.
Equally as deserving of a mention are the Tranmere Rovers fans who have put together a similar scheme on Merseyside – demonstrating what an occasion the two clubs would have put together on Sunday if times were different.
On the pitch, Sunderland must careful. Tranmere have become Wembley regulars in recent years, with some among the Super White Army renaming the national stadium ‘Prenton Park South’. While defeat to the League Two side would not detract from Lee Johnson’s onward surge toward the Championship, it would represent a major missed opportunity.
An opportunity to kill off that feeling of fear and hollowness associated with that place and to give us one day where all of the misery of the last few seasons can be cast away and forgotten. Sunderland have a lot of supporters, and not many of us have seen a Sunderland captain with hands on a Wembley trophy.
The curse of 1973 may be about to be lifted with one last punishment for us all – for our day to finally arrive when we are not there to see it.
Image: vagueonthehow via Creative Commons