When Doncaster Rovers captain Tommy Rowe sliced his kick wide of the goal in the penalty shootout at The Valley last Friday, Charlton fans invaded the pitch and gleefully celebrated with the players. They were going to Wembley for a play-offs final against Sunderland. The younger fans cavorting on the field will not remember the time the two clubs met at the old Wembley in 1998, but they will surely have heard stories from the older generation about what is perhaps the greatest play-offs final of them all.
That match 21 year ago also ended in a Charlton victory after a penalty shootout, with lifelong Sunderland fan Clive Mendonca the hero after scoring the first ever play-offs final hat-trick at Wembley in a pulsating 4-4 draw to deny his hometown club. Michael Gray was the man who missed his penalty in that shootout, feebly striking the ball into the waiting arms of Sasa Ilic after the previous 13 kicks had all been successful. He has never been allowed to forget that heartbreaking moment.
“It was a huge occasion worth around £10m at the time,” Gray says. “Even though that has been dwarfed by today’s figures, it felt massive. It felt like a cup final. Not many of us had been to Wembley before, so that was certainly on the bucket list and we could tick that one off. It was a case of ‘are we going to caught up in the occasion or are we going to play?’
“We even had a special shirt made with all the stitching. We picked them up before the day of the final but we found them unusually heavy. We put them on and they weighed an absolute ton. We were chatting about how this might take its toll if it was a hot day – and that’s exactly what it turned out to be. It was absolutely boiling and, the more the game wore on, the shirt began to weigh us down. It felt kind of strange, as if it were a disadvantage.”
“The game itself was like a basketball match, with plenty of goals, end-to-end action over 90 minutes and into extra time. One of the best, if not the best play-off final. As for Clive Mendonca, his performance was incredible. It was one of those days when he looked like he was going to score every time he touched the ball and we never found the formula to stop him.”
Mendonca was brilliant for Charlton but, with Niall Quinn scoring twice and Kevin Phillips also on target for Sunderland, it fell to Richard Rufus to score the 86th-minute goal that forced extra time and kept Charlton’s hopes alive. It was the first goal of his career. The goals kept coming in extra time but, with the tie still level after 120 minutes, the teams had to be separated by penalties. After 46 league games, two play-offs semi-finals and 120 minutes at Wembley, they would take aim from 12 yards for a place in the Premier League.
Gray did not expect to be involved in the shootout. When he inspected his teammates gathered in the centre-circle he was trying to work out who would take a penalty and he looked hopefully at striker Danny Dichio, who had come on as a substitute for Phillips in the 73rd minute. But Dichio had already taken off his boots off, a pretty strong signal he was not keen to step up. Gray was forced into his unenviable position. “I was a Sunderland boy, living the dream, playing for my local team and I just didn’t want to be the person responsible for us losing such an important match.”
“I do Q&As up around the north-east and obviously that penalty miss is the story they all want to hear. Nobody is interested in my England caps, in me finishing seventh in the Premier League with Sunderland or Blackburn … none of the good stuff. All they want to hear about is that bloody penalty. I don’t mind that now, but at the start it was one of those stories I didn’t want to talk about. But looking back, I think it marked a point where I became a stronger person and it helped get me to where I got in my career.
“It was frustrating that we ended up with Kevin Phillips, our No 1 penalty taker, substituted and therefore not able to take one in the shootout and so it fell to people who didn’t want to have to volunteer to take one and I fell into that bracket. I had only taken one penalty before – against Liverpool at Anfield in a League Cup tie – and David James saved it with his legs, so I didn’t have a fantastic record. When I saw who was left, there was only Jody Craddock and Darren Williams. I just thought: ‘They’re a bit younger than me, so it looks like it’s going to be my turn.’ Unfortunately, that seventh penalty will never leave my memory.
“I only took one more penalty in my life and that was in a pre-season friendly for Sheffield Wednesday and I actually scored that one. After I put it in the back of the net I was just thinking to myself why did I not take a penalty like that when I was at Wembley and my career could have been a little bit different.”
One of the happier memories for Gray was the reaction of the fans. “They were amazing. Straight after the match they were singing my name and as I was walking down the tunnel I could hear my name being sung, which gave me a real lift. When I got back to pre-season training, there was a sackful of mail waiting for me, just saying how they would have hated to be in that situation and praising the fact that I was brave enough to step up and take it.”
After the game, Gray’s manager took control of matters. “Peter Reid turned around to me and said: ‘I want you to get in your car and come to my house in Yarm and spend a couple of days with me.’ That’s exactly what I did and we had a few drinks together.”
Understandably, Gray was finally looking forward to getting away from football for a while. However, the final stage of his rehabilitation took an interesting twist when he had a close encounter with probably the last person on Earth he would want to see. “Funnily enough, after I’d been to Peter’s house, I then went on holiday to escape for four or five days and there was Clive Mendonca in the same part of Ayia Napa as I was. We just kind of chuckled at each other, had a giggle and a drink together and that was basically that, not a lot was said or needed to be said.”
This is an edited extract from Richard Foster’s book The agony and the ecstasy: a comprehensive history of the Football League play-offs