A Gray day for Sunderland in 1998. What about 2014?

PLAY-OFF HEARTBREAK:  Peter Reid and Michael Gray
PLAY-OFF HEARTBREAK: Peter Reid and Michael Gray

IT IS a picture no Sunderland fan will want to see repeated this Sunday.

Sunderland boss Peter Reid, jacket over his shoulders, ambles off the lush Wembley turf after the heartbreak of the 1998 promotion play-off final defeat to Charlton Athletic..

Behind him stands 23-year-old Michael Gray, the man who missed the crucial spot-kick in the epic penalty shoot-out, looking about as inconsolable as it is possible for any human being to look.

“Yeah, obviously it was tough to take at the time, very, very tough,” recalls Reid, who will be back at Wembley again this weekend, suited and booted, but this time watching from the pundit’s chair rather than dug-out.

“It felt harsh because the majority of the team that would set a new league record of 105 points the following season were at the club at the time and in the run-up to the play-offs they had played fantastically well.

“We played some amazing stuff in that 105-point season but some of the stuff we played in the final few months of 1997-98 was just as good as we recovered from a disappointing start.

“And going to Wembley, we felt as though it was going to be our day. Everyone felt good about it.

“I remember what a fantastic occasion for us it was, for our fans – the noise and the colour from Sunderland fans was amazing and they seemed to be all around the stadium.

“I’m sure it will be the same again this weekend – they travel in massive numbers and they make incredible noise.

“And whatever happens this Sunday, I’m sure they will be the most fantastic advert for Sunderland Football Club – just as they were in the play-offs.”

The play-off final ended 4-4 after extra time and then went to 7-6 on penalties before Charlton Athletic keeper Sasa Ilic saved Gray’s tame effort and Sunderland’s stunning late gallop to the Premier League fell at the final hurdle.

“You could say we were unfortunate,” shrugs Reid. “We got 90 points but finished one behind Middlesbrough, who took second place.

“We had the youngest back four in the club’s history I remember and they had been great for us but then we maybe got caught out a bit.

“And then when it came to penalties, Kevin Phillips and Lee Clark had already been substituted.

“We could have done with someone from Sunderland scoring a hat-trick on the day and I suppose on did – unfortunately for us it was Clive Mendonca!

“But looking back on it, I don’t really believe it was the play-off final which cost us promotion – it was a game against Queens Park Rangers the previous month.

“We were 2-0 up at home and cruising with well over an hour gone but then we let them back into it; something which should never have happened.

“We ended up drawing 2-2 a game we should have won comfortably.

“If we had seen it out, we would have had 92 points and never have needed to go to Wembley in the first place.”

Whereas Wembley was the consolation prize in 1998 for Sunderland’s late surge towards the top of the table, this time it’s the reward for a dogged League Cup run which has given the Wearsiders their first cup final of the 21st century.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Reid. “I’m doing a bit of TV work and I’ll be there for the match.

“My one big regret during my time as Sunderland manager was that I was never able to give the fans a trophy.

“They’ve waited a long time for one and who knows, that wait could end this Sunday.

“I’m sure Gus Poyet would love nothing better than to be the boss who takes silverware back to Wearside for the first time in more than 40 years.

”It wasn’t a great end to the day the last time Sunderland fans were at Wembley - we got everything except the right result and it was heartbreaking at the time.

“Maybe this weekend will be different and Sunderland fans will enjoy one of the best days of their lives

“They’re great fans and it’s fantastic they’re going to a Wembley final.

“No one’s suggesting it won’t be anything but a very difficult game for Gus and his players.

“But it’s a final, it’s a one-off, and it all depends on what happens on the day.”