Nottingham Forest and Middlesbrough occupied the top two places in Division One at the end of the regular season, leaving the four clubs immediately below them to fight it out for the final place in the Premier League. Sunderland, who finished third in the table, saw off Birmingham in their semi- final, while Charlton beat Ipswich to earn their place at Wembley.
In goal for Charlton was Sasa Ilic, who a year earlier had been playing for St Leonards Stamcroft in the Dr Martens League – seven levels below the Premier League – and had been considering giving up the game altogether before moving to the Valley on trial. But by the time he stepped out at Wembley, he was already a club legend after keeping a record nine clean sheets in a row and more than 13 hours had passed before the Charlton defense had been breached. The fans from southeast London arrived hoping he could extend that record, but it would a man who had supported Sunderland as a boy that made the headlines, Clive Mendonca.
A prize of £10 million in television and prize revenue awaited the winners, and with so much at stake it was no surprise that the tension got to both teams, with referee Wolstenholme producing three yellow cards in the first 20 minutes.
On 23 minutes it was Charlton who made the breakthrough, as Mendonca managed to turn his marker and send a stunning strike past Lionel Perez for his 26th goal of the season to give Charlton the lead. The goal encouraged Sunderland to come forward, but at half time Charlton still held their narrow advantage, with no one in the 77,739 crowd anticipating what was to come.
Within five minutes of the restart Niall Quinn had put Sunderland level, scoring with a near post header from Nicky Summerbee’s corner. Eight minutes later Kevin Phillips burst free to score his 35th goal of the campaign and Sunderland were in front. The Charlton fans were silenced, the Sunderland supporters jubilant.
Less than 20 minutes remained when Mendonca produced a stunning equalizer for Charlton racing through the Sunderland defense before steering the ball past Perez. But within two minutes Quinn had restored Sunderland’s advantage, chesting down a right wing cross and guiding the ball home at the near post. It nearly got worse for Charlton as Sunderland tried to increase their lead, and had Daniel Dichio not scuffed his shot, might have had the game won minutes later.
Sensing a place in the Premier League was slipping away, Charlton boss Alan Curbishley made a crucial substitution, bringing on winger John Robinson for fullback Danny Mills. It was to prove decisive, as with just five minutes of normal time remaining Robinson’s corner was met by the head of Richard Rufus to score his first goal for Charlton in 145 appearances, to send the game in extra time.
It was a tired 22 players who began that 30 minutes of extra time, but it was one of the old hands, Niall Quinn, who set up Summerbee to give Sunderland a 4-3 lead from the edge of the box. But Charlton were in no mood to throw in the towel as this pulsating match continued to amaze. Two minutes from the interval Steve Jones crossed the ball to Mendonca who had his back to Perez’s goal. In an instant he had controlled the ball, and slammed the ball into the net for the first ever hat trick in a play-off final.
Almost inevitably the second period saw neither side willing to risk further errors, every player aware that one mistake could see their Premier League dream evaporate. The final whistle signalled the end of one the most amazing games ever seen at the old stadium, but now the real drama was to unfold in the penalty shoot out.
Hat-trick hero Mendonca calmly slotted home the first spot kick, with Nicky Summerbee replying with equal poise. Steve Brown, Keith Jones and Mark Kinsella all scored for Charlton. Allan Johnston and Kevin Ball netted their kicks with ease, but Chris Makin was made to sweat as Ilic managed to get a hand to his effort before it squirmed into the right-hand corner of the net to make it 4-4.
Mark Bowen netted the fifth Charlton penalty and Alex Rae’s strike took it to sudden death. John Robinson scored to make it 6-5, but Niall Quinn found the back of the net for the third time in the afternoon to make it 6-6. Up stepped Shaun Newton to make it 7-6. The tension in the stadium was such that many fans could not bear to watch the kicks being taken and many had their backs to the pitch as Sunderland left-back Michael Gray stepped up. His left foot shot was well placed, but Sasa Ilic guessed correctly and this time was able to prevent the ball going into the net.
Utter pandemonium broke out at one end of the stadium, while the Sunderland fans above the tunnel sat in stunned disbelief, as Ilic disappeared under the entire Charlton squad. One of the greatest matches ever to take place at Wembley was finally over, a shade less than three hours after the sides had first kicked off. Mendonca had made history with the first ever hat trick in a Wembley play-off final, on a day none of those who witnessed it will ever forget.