THE DEJECTION of Wembley play-off heartache was only hours old when the Sunderland team bus pulled over at the side of the motorway for a toilet stop.
It was the scheduled chance to briefly stretch the legs before the remainder of the return journey to Wearside was conducted in glum silence.
No-one likes fighting relegation, and this year is another one where we’ve wanted so much, but we need to pull together again at the end of the seasonKevin Ball
But the pit-stop turned out to be a touch longer than expected.
As the coach slowed down, Kevin Ball approached Peter Reid and encouraged the idea of a few communal beers to take the edge off the gut-wrenching pain emanating from Micky Gray’s missed penalty earlier in the afternoon.
They ended up getting sloshed.
Dickie Ord, not even in the squad at Wembley, did a turn on the stage.
Ball, a non-smoker, remembers sharing a tab with Lionel Perez and hazily coming to the conclusion that he was a “good lad”.
But there was a purpose behind this drowning of sorrows.
Twelve months earlier, Ball had skippered Sunderland to the agony of relegation from the Premier League and found it an isolating, agonising experience.
Yes, he had fallen out of the top flight with Sunderland before – his debut season at Roker back in 1990-91 – but the second one ... the second one hurt like hell.
Ball had been so desperate to keep the club among the big boys that he played through the pain barrier for the final two months of the season, when he required operations on both knees.
Despite Sunderland reaching the magical 40-point mark, those efforts ultimately ended in vain after that agonising last-day defeat at Wimbledon.
There was no end-of-season get-together after the tears at Selhurst Park.
Ball returned home and stewed in the house by himself. His daughter recalls finding him in tears on the sitting room floor one day.
It’s why he was so determined to take the edge off the fresh heartache the following season.
“I remember being absolutely devastated, I can,” he recalls.
“I think that’s the most upset I was during my career.
“Was there a financial gain for us (in staying up)? Of course, I’m not going to lie. But was that the motivating factor? No. The overall one was pride.
“We wanted to say to people ‘Yes, we did it’.
“That was a challenge for us and we knew it was that year.
“Bearing in mind that our top goalscorer was four goals, it showed we had a tremendous resilience in our team, but it was still hard to take.
“When we came home from that, I didn’t go to the pub or anything, I went home.
“Yes, your family support you and they’re brilliant, but do they understand it to the length that your team-mates do, or even a supporter?
“Probably not. They can just sympathise.
“It was really hard.
“When we had the play-off final the following year, we were going to stop on our way back, but it was going to be brief and then we were going to come back home.
“I thought ‘No, no, no, this is not happening again’.
“We needed to have a few beers and a laugh together so that when we went back, we’d released some of that hurt and you know what your focus is going forwards.”
Ultimately, the pain of both relegation and the play-offs would define Reid’s side into the most fondly-remembered Sunderland team since 1973.
Yet how was that fierce battle against the drop on a personal level?
With this year’s fight for Premier League survival similarly promising to go to the wire, Ball’s successors in a red and white shirt will be experiencing the cement-mixer effect in the stomach.
Ball said: “It’s a mix of hope, anticipation, tinged with ‘what if?’
“That in itself creates a feeling of fear.
“You’re so worried about what might happen that you can forget to do what you need to do.
“You get a lot of elation if things go well, but a massive amount of dejection if things don’t because of the enormity of what you’re doing at that moment of time.
“Obviously, promotion and relegation is won or lost over the course of a season. But the intensity can then be factored into four or five games which makes the pressure build so much.
“It’s tough. It’s tough for everybody that’s associated with the club – the supporters because it’s their life, to the people who work within the club and to the players out on the pitch.
“But that’s part of the reason why you choose to go into the colosseum.
“You want to be a player who can make a difference and turn round and win games.
“Sometimes, retaining Premier League status is a win.”
Technically, third-bottom Sunderland’s fate remains in their own hands, with the Black Cats boasting a game in hand on their drop rivals.
But with that bonus match a daunting trip to Arsenal, Sunderland’s Premier League existence will also revolve around the other four teams scrapping to avoid the one relegation spot which is realistically still available.
By this stage, both players and managers invariably stress the importance of only concentrating on their own results.
That’s not true though, is it?
“No, it’s rubbish!” smiles Ball.
“You concentrate on your own job, but you look at other people.
“If you’re doing well and you see someone isn’t doing theirs, it gives you added confidence. By the same token, if you’re not doing well and they are, it either deflates you or makes you more resilient.”
How much do the current crop feel the hurt though?
Certainly, there is a difference of perceptions among supporters about the Sunderland teams led by Ball, and the current crop at the Stadium of Light.
The relegated Sunderland team from 1996-97 – perhaps helped by the Premier Passions documentary which chronicled life in the dressing room – came so close to survival through sheer effort, as much as ability, and were recognised for that.
At times this season, the commitment and will-to-win in Sunderland’s ranks has been open to scrutiny.
However, in Sunderland’s last two games, there has unquestionably been a clear determination from Dick Advocaat’s side to avoid the drop – epitomised by Danny Graham in last weekend’s win over Southampton.
The crowd responded to Graham’s performance, and Ball was not surprised.
“You need that nucleus of five or six lads who drive the rest on,” he added.
“It’s good that there’s characters in that dressing room now and you hope they can bring the rest on with them.
“I watched Danny Graham on Saturday and I’m thinking if he does that over the course of the season, they’d love him.
“I understand how the fans feel because have we done enough for them? No.
“But I know what a difference they make to the players.
“Yes, they love skill, but they love players who give 100 per cent commitment. Every player has got to do everything they can to keep this team in the Premier League.
“By them doing that, the fans will respond to that on a Saturday.
“So I know how the players are feeling at the moment, and I know how the supporters are feeling because they’re desperate for us to stay up.
“When there’s a cumulative groan at something going wrong on the pitch, it sounds awful. It does. There’s no two-ways about it.
“Does that knock the players’ confidence a little bit? Possibly.
“But it is understandable? Definitely.
“The players need that resilience to minimise it and then the supporters have a massive part in getting behind the team.
“I’ve been involved in the club for 25 years and they say you know when you’re a true Sunderland supporter because there’s always something happening at the end of the season, whether it’s promotion or relegation.
“No one likes fighting relegation, and this year is another one where we’ve wanted so much, but we need to pull together again at the end of the season.”
That is the thrust of Ball’s message.
The ultimate team player knows Wearside needs the ultimate team effort to avoid the heartache he endured 18 years ago.