The inside story of the bittersweet day Sunderland rewrote their Wembley history - even if it wasn't quite how anyone dreamed it

Phil Smith reports from an empty Wembley as Sunderland end a 48-year wait for a win at the national stadium. History written, even if was not quite how anyone imagined it happening...

Monday, 15th March 2021, 12:30 pm
Updated Monday, 15th March 2021, 1:14 pm

Forty-eight years. 17,840 days.

That’s a lot of time for longing; for dreaming about this moment.

Over and over again it will have been played out in the heads of Sunderland supporters on Wearside and beyond.

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Sunderland celebrate their Papa John's Trophy win
Sunderland celebrate their Papa John's Trophy win

The moment when all that heartbreak, all that frustration and all that hurt dissipated, even just for a day.

The moment when it was their club lifting the trophy, drawing nods of appreciation and respect from elsewhere.

No longer the butt of football’s jokes, the agony recycled on god-awful twitter gambling accounts for endless retweets and crying emojis.

How did you imagine it?

Lynden Gooch celebrates after scoring the winner

Perhaps how you dreamed this moment changed over the years, new heroes coming and going, new regimes, new managers.

And how did this strange afternoon compare?

Some of it, for sure, felt exactly how you imagined and hoped it would.

The goal, oh the goal.

Sunderland players celebrate with Grant Leadbitter

The way that the move starts, deep in Sunderland’s half in a game otherwise quite flat and at that moment, with seemingly little prospect of breaking open.

And then. That little shift from McGeady, the turn of pace through the middle of the pitch when Tranmere expected him to move it wide to the left.

The defensive line suddenly out of sync and wait a second, is this on? The glorious weight of pass, the jolt of excitement as one midfielder, one defender, two defenders, three defenders are taken out of the game.

Then the wait.

There could have been much that went through Lynden Gooch’s head when he broke through on goal.

Two relegations, two devastating defeats on this turf. That brave leap of faith when he swapped California for Wearside all those years ago. All those minutes and hours of relentless work on the training ground, when the prospect of playing for Sunderland would still have seemed remote.

All the anxiety when managers change, the slate is wiped clean and that arduous journey of proving yourself all over again begins.

All the sacrifices made by those around you, to make a quite unique move across the world worthwhile.

Gooch, though, seemed to know there would be time for all that.

Lee Johnson had worked with him on this run in the build-up to the game, sensing that there could be a gap to be exploited.

He has, too, worked with a talented player on going ‘cold’ in the final third. Aggressive, quick and direct, Gooch is the perfect Johnson played but the Head Coach knows it is that final step, that pause and clarity of thought at the crucial moment, that will turn him into a Championship player in the long run.

So here the 25-year-old knew exactly what to do.

No first touch, letting the ball slowly but purposefully drift across him.

In front rooms all over the country that quite unique blend of agony and anticipation as time stands still.

Oh hang on, is this the moment? This is the moment.

An academy graduate bolts for the corner and leaps into the air with an almighty roar. You couldn’t have imagined it much better than that.

Now we have a cup final. Now we have those flutters, the nerves and the dread.

That horror deep down as cross after cross swirls into the box, the heart skipping a beat as bodies go on the line and out on the pitch, those cries for focus and application get that little bit louder, that little bit more desperate.

The fear when Tranmere stand over a set piece, not being able to look but not able to look away either.

The burst of relief when Jack Diamond, an academy graduate with no right to play with this little fear at the national stadium, picks it up deep in his own half and runs and runs.

The bizarre ecstasy when he is chopped down, and the thirty seconds you know this free kick will win feels like another goal.

Then, that whistle you have been waiting to hear for nearly half a century.

The burst of pride and relief.

The memories of the bitter disappointments you put yourself through in the hope that one day, it would lead to this moment.

What nobody would have imagined is the overwhelming sense of absence.

In all those daydreams played out since that special day in 1973, the din of the red-and-white army would have been front and centre.

The building of anticipation the night before, the old songs sung and stories retold, the friendships rekindled and the dearly missed and loved toasted.

The pre-match crackle and the gentle, unmistakable building of Wise Men Say to its crescendo.

The guttural roar and explosion of applause at its conclusion, the sound of destiny ahead.

Here, all we had has indie fillier and the disorientating feel of an exhibition match waiting to begin.

The flatness of the first half, when the loudest sound was the whirr of the ventilation above. The tiredness in the legs and the minds, the tempo belying the sense of occasion you were supposed to feel.

In all those dreams, what would have been imagined is the flailing of limbs as Gooch wheels away.

The strangers hugged and kissed, the person behind you stumbling and crashing into your row. You’ll pick them up and give them a pat on the back because this moment, this is what it’s all about.

The screams of ‘get out’ as Sunderland inevitably are pushed deeper and deeper, the hands pushed together in prayer, though you have no idea exactly who you hope is listening.

Roar at the dugout and tell them to change it, because it’s something to do and that helps with the utter helplessness.

The fist pumps and glances at the watch when Diamond is brought down and you have a minute to tell yourself to calm down and grow up, for god’s sake.

In none of those dreams would there have been this cruel twist of fate, when the end so many came to see as cursed could not gently sway as it had done 48-years ago, players and staff starry-eyed and glazing over as ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ rang out.

That as the players sprayed their champagne and bounced to the joy of finally bloody winning, that cursed end would stand gently.

In all of those dreams the joy would have spilled out through the concourse and onto Wembley way, a party only just getting started.

All over the country, to the nearest pub to talk over every last detail over and over again because you’ve waited for so long for it and no one could possibly get bored.

Pick through that Aiden McGeady pass some more, laugh about that moment where Corey Blackett-Taylor broke free and the sense of inevitability you felt was so overwhelming you thought you might throw up.

Remember those you wished could be with you, and what they would have made of it all.

Above all else, revel in that slow drift away from the game as the adrenaline ebbs away just a touch. Now it’s just quality time, space shared with those close because all said and done, that’s the whole point of this thing and this club anyway.

Without all of this, March 14th 2021 will always be the bittersweet final.

The day all that hurt broke but the sense of catharsis so long dreamed of remained elusive. No one ever dreamed that when that whistle finally blew on the years of falling short, they wouldn’t even be there to say yes, there has been so much pain stood in this stadium but for now, it’s gone.

Maybe, though, history will lend this day its own warm glow.

A weekend where Sunderland made do.

When they couldn’t go to the game, so instead came together online to raise eye-watering sums for the community.

When living rooms were dressed up and reorganised to match the occasion. When photos of trips gone by were shared and revisited, vows made to make the most of it when some sense of normality resumes.

Champagne quietly popped in kitchens and gardens, emergency summons to Zoom and Whatsapp messages excitedly fired out.

A weekend where even in their absence, Sunderland made their ‘power and velocity felt’.

A passion unrestrained, feeding its way through even to those whose connections to the club are relatively fresh.

The passion that takes over Dion Sanderson, Carl Winchester and Aiden O’Brien, belting out songs from up high before the game.

The emotions in the south west, where Lee Johnson’s nan had one too many (Welcome to Wearside, Mrs Johnson).

There were the ties stretching further back, too, playing out even in the quiet.

Luke O'Nien, who arrived at the club from Wycombe Wanderers and in those first few weeks felt like his head had been put through a tumble dryer.

The graft that followed, the connections built, the unmistakable move to one of your own made.

The sense of some ghosts of two years ago exorcised, tears turned to a man-of-the-match award and a kiss on the trophy.

The sense of potential being unlocked, a ceiling being smashed in a new position and a new role. A free-wheeling libero finding his feet and then some.

A dream fulfilled, even if it was not quite how he would have imagined it.

Just yards away, another facetime call home.

This time Grant Leadbitter, whose first words after the game had been to reflect on the absence of the fans he knows so well.

A time here to pause on the turf he had so longed to achieve success with this club on.

His own dream fulfilled, even if it was not quite how he would have imagined it.

This will maybe be the story of this strangest of Wembley weekends.

When absence strengthened bonds, reinforced a proud history and lent belief to the idea that maybe, just maybe, this will be a team and club worth the wait.

That’s the task for Johnson and his team now.

“This is a little step along the ladder in terms of building that relationship,” he said.

“We miss the fans in terms of, I've not been able to have that close interaction with them yet.

"But even then you can feel the power and velocity of the club.

"We say if we can get it right and be aligned across the club, we know it can be so powerful.

"This is a little step along the ladder in terms of building that relationship.

"I know how much heartache they've had over the years and we are so pleased to be able to give something back.

"All that effort, all that money spent, all the history through the families, the ribbing from other clubs, the difficult moments.

"Hopefully this is the start of our journey looking up.

"With our development and our recruitment we've really got to step it up now.

"We've really got to kick on to compete with teams, to get to where we want to be and what we believe is our rightful place."

So no, this wasn’t a major honour.

And no, it wasn’t quite how anyone had dreamed it would happen.

But it’s been forty-eight years, 17,840 days, with seven heartbreaks along the way.

Even in very recent history there have been back-to-back relegations and false dawns aplenty.

So yes, Lynden Gooch breaking through on goal was a chapter of history worth telling, even if this will always be the final that never quite was.

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