Devastation, tears and that play-off final – controversial ex-Sunderland midfielder Lee Clark reflects on Wembley in his autobiography

Devastated: Sunderland manager Peter Reid and defender Micky Gray show their despair following the play-off final defeat to Charlton on penalties. Picture by Malcolm Murray

Devastated: Sunderland manager Peter Reid and defender Micky Gray show their despair following the play-off final defeat to Charlton on penalties. Picture by Malcolm Murray

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Lee Clark was an influential member of Sunderland’s team in the first two seasons at the Stadium of Light.

But the former Newcastle United midfielder, signed in the summer of 1997, left under a cloud before the promotion success of the 105-point 1998-99 First Division title-winning season could be savoured, departing before the Black Cats’ second Premiership adventure began.

Lee Clark jumps for joy after scoring on his home debut for Sunderland, against Manchester City in August 1997. the first competitive game at the Stadium of Light. Picture by Kevin Brady

Lee Clark jumps for joy after scoring on his home debut for Sunderland, against Manchester City in August 1997. the first competitive game at the Stadium of Light. Picture by Kevin Brady

He was spotted at Wembley, supporting Newcastle in the FA Cup final, wearing a disgracefully derogatory T-shirt – and his time on Wearside was over. He has offered regret for the action since.

Now, in his explosive new autobiography Black or White, no Grey areas, ghost-written by Will Scott, Clark – now the manager of Kilmarnock – reflects on his times at Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham.

Here, we have an extract from his memories of Sunderland’s dramatic 1998 play-off final against Charlton Athletic, when the game ebbed and flowed in the Wembley sunshine before an unforgettable game ended 4-4 after extra time.

Sunderland then lost on penalties, leaving the city heartbroken.

Lee Clark's autobiography, published by Mojo Risin Publishing

Lee Clark's autobiography, published by Mojo Risin Publishing

Clark writes: “The 1998 play-off final is very much fêted by the neutrals in the same way the Premier League classic between Newcastle and Liverpool is celebrated in 1996.

“It had everything: drama, excitement, a hero, a villain and, astonishingly, both of them were Mackems.

“Clive Mendonca was a Sunderland fan playing for the Addicks. It couldn’t have been scripted any better for him, as these things generally turn out to be. I’ve seen it so many times in my career where a former player or supporter returns to haunt his old club or boyhood team.

“The latter was the case at Wembley.

“Mendonca netted a hat-trick to inflict a devastating blow on his home-town club and also netted a penalty in the shoot-out.

“The match ebbed and flowed in favour of both sides and finished all square, 3-3, at the end of 90 minutes. We then went 4-3 up against the Addicks in injury-time of extra-time.

“Our goal machine Kevin Phillips was already off the field. Peter Reid took me off as well because I thought I had cramp.

“Turns out I’d pulled a calf muscle.

“We thought we’d done it by that stage. But then Richard Rufus equalises to take it to penalties.

“Phillips was our number one penalty taker and I was number two. All 10 penalties were scored and then we were into a nail-biting sudden death situation.

“No Sunderland supporters need reminding of what happened next as Micky Gray missed his penalty and we were condemned to another season in the Football League’s second tier.

“It was as if someone had died when we got back to the dressing room.

“Heads were down, there were a few tears and it was an emotional place to find yourself.

“Reidy declared we had nothing to be ashamed of, we’d had a ‘right good go at it’ and ‘we’ll have another go next season’.

“He then told us the chairman had organised a party for the players and wives in Peterborough.

“The boss added we could still have a good night and that we deserved it for our efforts.

“A big room was set aside for us to go and see our families after the match.

“The club was great with our nearest and dearest.

“They put them up in a hotel the night before the clash and really looked after them.

“The devastation was so bad after we lost the contest that Bobby Saxton got back on the team bus in his tracksuit and boots.

“He hadn’t changed into his club suit. He was on a different planet and his emotions were running high.

“Saxton’s wife had got Reidy’s permission for the players’ wives and girlfriends to join their husbands and boyfriends to go to the party on the Sunderland coach.

“When she got on the bus he exploded.

“‘Where do you think you’re going? This is for the players and staff. Get off the bus!’”

“‘But Peter said we could come back with you.’

“‘Your mother never went down the pit with your father, did she?’

“Saxton’s wife was distraught.

“But we all were.

“The players’ wives got off the bus and went on another one.

“Reidy’s number two then turned on defenders Darren Williams and Jody Craddock and gave it to them big style: ‘you two ******s have just cost us a place in the Premier League!’

“I told you all week about looking after Mendonca!”

“Williams and Craddock didn’t need telling anything.

“They were just as devastated as the rest of us.

“The bus journey was horrendous for the first hour.

“The tension was excruciating.

“Saxton was sitting in the middle of the bus taking pot shots at certain players as they went past.

“It was horrific.

“Reidy eventually persuaded him to go and sit at the front of the bus in the end so we wouldn’t be on the end of his cutting remarks.

“He eventually apologised to the boss and the lads for his outbursts. But the gaffer and everyone understood.

“We went to the party, which was flat, and just went through the motions.

“It was an anticlimax.

“There was nothing to celebrate, so we had a few drinks to try and get it out of our system.

“We all took it badly but none more so than Micky Gray.

“It took all summer to get it out of his system.”

* Black or White, no Grey Areas, the autobiography of Lee Clark, is ghost-written by Will Scott and published by Mojo Risin’ Publishing.