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Sunderland at Wembley: An 11-act tale of footballing triumph and tragedy

By James Hunter

Sunderland head into next week's League One play-off final brimming with confidence after a strong finish to the season - and with their 48-year Wembley hoodoo finally having been broken. Wembley appearances have been viewed with a growing sense of apprehension over the previous four decades as Sunderland's defeats at the national stadium racked up.

But such worries are now a thing of the past, following Sunderland's victory against Tranmere Rovers in the EFL Trophy final under the arch in March last year. It was their first win in nine attempts since their famous FA Cup triumph against Leeds United in 1973, and the only sadness was that there were no fans there to see it as the game was played behind-closed-doors due to the Covid rules then in place.

READ MORE: Nathan Broadhead's cameo opens the door to a Wembley outing as Sunderland chase play-off success

The trophy win was all well and good but the play-off final against Wycombe Wanderers a week on Saturday is a different order of magnitude with a place in the Championship at stake - and this time there will be 37,500 Sunderland fans there to cheer on Alex Neil's side and to turn Wembley Way into a sea of red and white. For Sunderland, it will be their second play-off final in four years and it is a chance to end the club's four-year stay in the third tier and climb back into the Championship.

For Wycombe, it is an opportunity to make an immediate return to the Championship having been relegated last term. In the meantime, here is a guide to the triumphs and the tragedies of Sunderland's previous Wembley appearances, all the way from 1937 to the present day.

Sunderland captain Raich Carter on his way back to Wearside by train after his team had beaten Preston in the 1937 FA Cup Final (Mirrorpix)

Saturday, May 1, 1937

FA Cup final: Sunderland 3-1 Preston North End

Sunderland's maiden Wembley appearance ended in victory as the Rokermen, managed by Johnny Cochrane, brought the FA Cup back to Wearside for the first time. Frank O'Donnell put Preston in front on 44 minutes, but Bobby Gurney levelled for the reigning champions seven minutes into the second half, with captain Raich Carter completing the turnaround 20 minutes later and Eddie Burbanks adding the third five minutes from time.

Saturday, May 5, 1973

FA Cup final: Leeds United 0-1 Sunderland

There was a 36-year gap between Sunderland's first and second trips to the Twin Towers, and they returned in very different circumstances. Far from the reigning champions of England, Sunderland were instead competing in the Second Division and they were firmly cast in the role of underdogs against Don Revie's elite - if unloved - Leeds team that was looking to win the cup for a second successive season.

Bob Stokoe's side failed to read the script, however, and Ian Porterfield scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game in the 31st minute. This was also the game which saw Jimmy Montgomery write his name into FA Cup folklore with the most famous save in the history of the competition, parrying an initial header from Trevor Cherry before a split-second later somehow managing to divert the follow-up from Peter Lorimer onto the bar and over.

With this win, Sunderland became the first second-tier team to lift the cup since 1931.

Sunday, March 24, 1985

League Cup final: Norwich City 1-0 Sunderland

Sunderland had to wait 12 years for another cup final and this is where their tale of Wembley woe began. They took on Norwich City in the League Cup final, with future Sunderland manager Steve Bruce lining up in the Canaries' defence.

A minute into the second half, David Corner - making only his fifth appearance - tried to usher the ball out near the corner flag but was dispossessed by John Deehan, and when the ball came to Asa Hartford inside the penalty area, his shot deflected off Gordon Chisholm and left goalkeeper Chris Turner no chance. Len Ashurst's side could have got back on terms a matter of minutes later when Dennis Van Wijk handled and Sunderland were awarded a penalty, but Clive Walker dragged his spot-kick wide of the right-hand post.

Sunderland's Gordon Armstrong in action at Wembley against Wigan Athletic in the Football League Centenary Tournament (Daily Mirror)

Saturday, April 16, 1988

Football League Centenary Tournament: Wigan 0-0 Sunderland (Wigan win 2-1 on penalties)

Sunderland were back at Wembley as part of a 16-team tournament to celebrate the 100th birthday of the Football League, and they faced Wigan Athletic in the opening round. The opening round games lasted just 40 minutes, and Denis Smith's Sunderland fought out a goalless draw against fellow Third Division side Wigan.

The game went immediately to a sudden-death penalty shootout, with John MacPhail scoring the first spot-kick and Stan McEwan levelling for the Latics. But Colin Pascoe saw his penalty saved by Phil Hughes, and that allowed Paul Cook to convert to send Wigan through to the quarter-finals.

Monday, May 28, 1990

Second Division play-off final: Sunderland 0-1 Swindon Town

This was Sunderland's first experience of a play-off final, and they arrived at Wembley having beaten rivals Newcastle United 2-0 on aggregate in the semi-final. Swindon, meanwhile, had beaten Blackburn in the other semi.

The only goal of the game came on 25 minutes when Alan McLoughlin's shot took a deflected off Gary Bennett and beat Tony Norman, leaving Denis Smith's Sunderland despondent as the Robins celebrated on the day. But it proved a pyrrhic victory for Swindon, as a League Management Committee hearing demoted Ossie Ardiles' side two divisions - later reduced to one on appeal - for financial irregularities, which meant losing finalists Sunderland were promoted to the top flight in their place.

Saturday, May 9, 1992

FA Cup final: Liverpool 2-0 Sunderland

Just as in their last FA Cup final outing in 1973, Second Division Sunderland were the underdogs as they took on a Liverpool side still regarded as a footballing superpower even though their 1970s and 1980s dominance had come to an end. There was to be no fairytale ending this time, however, and Malcolm Crosby's Sunderland were comfortably beaten as Michael Thomas gave the Reds the lead a couple of minutes after half-time, and Ian Rush added the second goal midway through the second period.

John Byrne had scored in every round en-route to the final, but he could find the net in the shadow of the Twin Towers. This defeat, 30 years ago this month, was Sunderland's most recent appearance in an FA Cup final.

Monday, May 25, 1998

First Division play-off final: Charlton Athletic 4-4 Sunderland aet (Charlton win 7-6 on penalties)

Regarded as one of the most dramatic games ever seen at Wembley, that did nothing to dispell the disappointment as Sunderland's wait for a win in this quarter of North London stretched to 25 years. Peter Reid's Sunderland arrived having beaten Sheffield United 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-final, while Charlton had beaten Ipswich 2-0 over two legs in their semi.

Sunderland-born Clive Mendonca fired the Addicks in front midway through the first half, but second-half goals from Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips turned things around before the hour. Mendonca scored again 20 minutes from the end to level things up, only for Quinn to put the Black Cats 3-2 in front almost immediately.

Charlton's Richard Rufus sent the game into extra-time with a goal five minutes from the end. In the additional half-hour, Nicky Summerbee made it 4-3 to Sunderland in the 99th minute but five minutes later Mendonca completed his hat-trick to drag his side level once more, and ultimately send the game to a penalty shootout.

After 10 perfect penalties, the shootout went to sudden death and, with Charlton leading 7-6 on penalties, Mickey Gray was the unlucky one, seeing his spot-kick saved by Sasa Ilic as the Addicks won out. This was Sunderland's final appearance at the old Wembley Stadium.

Fabio Borini of Sunderland celebrates scoring Sunderland's goal against Manchester City in the League Cup final at Wembley (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

League Cup final: Manchester City 3-1 Sunderland

After a 16-year absence, Sunderland were back at Wembley in 2014 - and it marked their first visit to the all-new stadium that had opened in 2007. Gus Poyet's Black Cats had seen off MK Dons, Peterborough, Southampton, Chelsea, and Manchester United to reach the showpiece final, while City's route had seen them overcome Wigan, Newcastle, Leicester, and West Ham.

On paper it was a mismatch, with Premier League powerhouse City having spent hundreds of millions on stars such as Sergio Aguero, Edin Dzeko, Samir Nasri, David Silva, Fernandinho, Yaya Toure, and Vincent Kompany. But for 45 minutes, Sunderland fans dared to dream after on-loan Liverpool forward Fabio Borini fired them into a tenth minute lead, with his finish beating future Black Cats keeper Costel Pantilimon.

The rude awakening came when City levelled on 55 minutes through Toure, with Nasri adding the second goal a minute later, and Jesus Navas wrapping things up with a third in stoppage time.

Portsmouth keeper Craig MacGillivray celebrates saving Lee Cattermole's penalty at Wembley (Sunderland AFC via Getty Images)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

EFL Trophy final: Portsmouth 2-2 Sunderland aet (Portsmouth win 5-4 on penalties)

After back-to-back relegations left Sunderland in League One, the prospect of a Wembley cup final came as a welcome diversion in the latter stages of a promotion challenge. Jack Ross' side took on Pompey under the arch in front of a competition record attendance of 85,021, and looked to be on their way to victory after Aiden McGeady put them in front in the 38th minute.

But, eight minutes from time, Nathan Thompson equalised to send the game into extra-time. Jamal Lowe then put Portsmouth in front in the 114th minute, only for McGeady to haul Sunderland level five minutes later, and take the match to a penalty shootout.

Lee Cattermole took Sunderland's second penalty and saw Craig MacGillivray make the save, with Pompey's Oli Hawkins scoring the decisive spot-kick which earned his side the Trophy.

Sunderland players are left flat out after Charlton's injury-time winner at Wembley (Andy Commins / Daily Mirror)

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Charlton Athletic 2-1 Sunderland

Less than two months after their EFL Trophy defeat, Sunderland were back at Wembley for the League One play-off final - and for a rematch of their 1998 battle with Charlton. Sunderland had beaten their Trophy final opponents Portsmouth 1-0 on aggregate in the play-off semi-final, with Charlton defeating Doncaster Rovers on penalties in their semi after the two legs had finished 4-4 on aggregate.

The Black Cats were gifted a perfect start when Charlton defender Naby Sarr's overhit backpass beat goalkeeper Dillon Phillips and found the net. Ben Purrington levelled for the Addicks 10 minutes before half-time, and with both sides failing to make headway in the second half the game looked destined for extra-time until Patrick Bauer scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time to win the game for the Londoners and give Sunderland that familiar sinking feeling.

Sunderland's Lynden Gooch (left) and Grant Leadbitter celebrate after winning the EFL Trophy at Wembley in 2021 (PA)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

EFL Trophy final: Sunderland 1-0 Tranmere Rovers

At last! After a 48-year wait, Sunderland finally clocked up another win at Wembley.

Lee Johnson's Black Cats were paired against League Two Tranmere in the final, and the game was settled by Lynden Gooch's goal just before the hour. The only downside was that there were no fans there to see it, with the game played out behind-closed-doors due to the Covid restrictions then in force.

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