I remember my dad arriving back home from Wembley after our historic FA Cup win over Leeds in 1973. Seven-year-old me was still struggling to deal with not having been there.
‘Don’t worry son,’ he said. ‘In your lifetime, you’ll see Sunderland win at Wembley again.’
That was 49 years ago and I’m still waiting.
Sunderland’s 1973 FA Cup Final triumph over Leeds United was their last win at Wembley in front of fans. They did win the EFL Trophy 1-0 against Tranmere last season but no one could go
49 years of hurt: Sunderland at Wembley
1973 FA Cup Final vs Leeds 1-0 WON
1985 League Cup Final (Milk Cup) vs Norwich 1-0 LOST
1990 Second Division Play-Off vs Swindon 1-0 LOST
1992 FA Cup Final vs Liverpool 2-0 LOST
1998 First Division Play-Off vs Charlton 4-4 LOST (7-6 on pens)
2014 League Cup Final vs Manchester City 3-1 LOST
2019 EFL Trophy Final 2-2 vs Portsmouth LOST (5-4 on pens)
2019 League One Play-Off Final vs Charlton 2-1 LOST
2021 EFL Trophy Final vs Tranmere 1-0 WON (Lockdown: Played in empty stadium)
2022 League One Play-Off Final vs Wycombe Wanderers
My dad passed away in 2020 so he didn’t see last season’s 1-0 EFL Trophy victory over Tranmere.
Lockdown meant most supporters only saw it on TV.
So those seven Wembley defeats – from Gordon Chisholm’s deflected own goal in 1985, to Charlton’s injury-time winner in 2019 – still rankle.
In truth I reckon we never really looked like winning any of them – although the astonishing 4-4 draw and 7-6 penalty defeat to Charlton in 1998 was closer than most.
But this time it feels different. Not least because I won’t be on a bus that breaks down just outside of Darlington. (Carney’s Coaches, March 1985. I still have the ticket.)
We’re going down to Wembley undefeated in 15 matches. The only game we’ve lost since Alex Neil became manager was back in February, at Milton Keynes.
Since then, he’s made us more like him: tough, gritty, unsmiling.
When he was appointed to replace Lee Johnson, I wasn’t sure. My head had been turned by Roy Keane and in the early days it seemed to me that half the East Stand (at the Stadium of Light) agreed.
But looking back, giving the job to Neil was a Kyril Louis-Dreyfus master stroke.
Even when Neil’s game plan doesn’t work – and I’m thinking in particular of that stunning 88th minute own-goal equaliser by Rotherham defender Michael Ihiekwe – we somehow get away with a draw.
Nightmare capitulations are now unimaginable. Which is just as well as the 0-6 spanking at Bolton and 1-2 choker at Cheltenham are still keeping me awake.
Sunderland manager Alex Neil has created a ‘gritty’ team in his own image, says Sassi
It’s almost a smile… Neil has made Sunderland hard to beat and stopped the ‘capitulations’
We’re not bothered how we get our results, as clawing our way out of League One is the only target. And few supporters – stuck in the depths of the old Division Three for four long seasons – are complaining.
After our play-off second leg at Hillsborough, Sunderland’s time management – s***housery, if you like – was criticised by Wednesday fans.
Forget it. Four seasons down here is four seasons too many, so we’ll do what we need to do to get back up into the Championship and beyond. Which other well-managed club wouldn’t do the same?
Whatever Saturday’s result, we need to tie Neil down to a long-term contract, because his current 12-month rolling deal means we could lose him at any time.
Our season started well enough under Johnson and eye-catching performances from home-grown youngsters like Eliot Embleton and Dan Neil gave us hope.
Sunderland beat Sheffield Wednesday in the play-off semi-final when Patrick Roberts hooked home in the 93rd minute
But as the youngsters tired, the season stuttered… and the hope disappeared.
Few fans mourned his passing when Johnson was sacked. His team had gone soft. What’s more, I can’t be the only man who was unnerved by the fact he frequently looked like he might burst into tears.
Now Neil is coaxing match-winning performances from another set of youngsters – our loan stars. And they’re clearly having the time of their lives.
Our undefeated run-in has been underpinned by the goals and the trickery of Jack Clarke (thanks to Spurs), Patrick Roberts (cheers to Man City) and Nathan Broadhead (I can’t believe Everton let him go).
We know from the 3-3 draw back in January that Wycombe will be tough. They’ve also won four games at Wembley in the years Sunderland have lost seven.
The Black Cats will meet Wycombe in the final at Wembley after the Chairboys beat MK Dons
It’s just that this time we have Loch Ness Drogba Ross Stewart, who’s already scored 25 goals this season. And local lad Anthony Patterson, who people in the know reckon could be our next Jordan Pickford.
So, on Saturday I’m travelling down to Wembley in my ’73 replica shirt – the original was left on Seaburn beach after a Boxing Day Dip in the ’80s – with more hope than I’ve had in the last 49 years.
I reckon my dad is also looking down, convinced this is the season he’ll be proved right.
Alex Neil may not often crack a smile. But he’s certainly given us reasons to be cheerful.