This is a tale that concerns a high-scoring final played on 25th May which was won by a team in red after a penalty shoot-out in what has gone down in history as one of the most famous moments in the club’s history. If you’re expecting something related to Liverpool’s Champions League triumph in Istanbul, though, I’ll have to disappoint you on this occasion. Instead, this is an ode to that epic Division One play-off final seven years earlier when Charlton Athletic reached the hallowed land of the Premier League after beating Sunderland on penalties following a dramatic 4-4 draw amid 120 minutes of frenetic football.
It has been virtually forgotten in the intervening 21 years that this final was something of a slow burner. There was only one goal in the first half; it was in the second 45 minutes that the game truly caught fire, with two further goals in extra time. Charlton struck first, Sunderland turned it around, the teams traded goals and then the Addicks equalised again to force an additional 30 minutes. Sunderland edged ahead once more before Alan Curbishley’s side levelled for the third time. Then came that heart-stopping 14-penalty shoot-out in which only one was unsuccessful.
We know that Clive Mendonca’s hat-trick was instrumental in Charlton’s eventual promotion and that Saša Ilić was the goalkeeper who stopped Michael Gray’s spot kick to finally settle this most classic of play-off finals in 1998. What became of the three standout protagonists after that famous day at Wembley, though?
The bittersweet irony for hat-trick hero Mendonca was that his treble came against the club he supported as a boy. He would never play for Sunderland, but Charlton was the fifth club of a professional career that traversed the Football League. He had only been at The Valley for a year prior to the play-off final, having become a Grimsby legend in a five-year stint for the Mariners.
Charlton would have been nowhere near Wembley had it not been for Mendonca, who scored 28 times in total in the 1997/98 season. He had the honour of scoring the last hat-trick at the old Wembley, as well as Charlton’s first hat-trick in the Premier League three months later. The Addicks’ first home game in the division was one to remember, a 5-0 thrashing of Southampton which put them top of the league overnight.
Alas, that was as good as it got for club and player. Curbishley’s men inevitably dropped down the table and were relegated on the final day, with Southampton ironically being the team that edged them for 17th place. Mendonca, who turned 30 a month after his treble against the Saints, saw the rest of his career plagued by injury problems. His last appearance came midway during the 1999/2000 season and, having been unable to recover from lengthy convalescence, he announced his retirement two years later.
Mendonca’s involvement in football ended with the conclusion of his playing career. He was among the beneficiaries of the PFA’s education budget which enabled ex-players to bed their way into new careers. The Charlton icon’s vocation of choice was an unconventional one – he trained to work on an oil rig. He later returned to the city of Sunderland, where he worked in the local Nissan factory.
Football may have by and large forgotten Clive Mendonca, but Charlton supporters never will – and neither will the Sunderland hordes whose hearts he broke that Monday afternoon at Wembley.
Goalkeepers may be first in the firing line when they make mistakes, but penalty shoot-outs offer them the chance to become legends for a lifetime. For Charlton supporters, Ilić will always be fondly recalled as the man whose penalty save from Michael Gray confirmed their place in the Premier League.
Ilić grew up in Australia before moving to what was then Yugoslavia in his teenage years and he represented his adopted country twice at senior level. He was an unfamiliar name to English football fans when he joined Charlton in 1997 but, like Mendonca, he shot to fame after the play-off final a year later. He was the Addicks’ first choice goalkeeper during their first season in the Premier League but, after their return to the First Division in 1999, he lost his place to Irish keeper Dean Kiely.
His career petered out after that, with Ilić bouncing around six English clubs in five years as well as having a brief spell with Hungarian club Zalaegerszeg, for whom he played when they enjoyed a famous victory over Manchester United in a Champions League qualifier before they were thumped in the return leg at Old Trafford. Ilić was sent off in that game, too.
Upon retiring from football in 2005, he left the public eye and suffered an annus horribilis in 2009. In that one year alone, his father died, his marriage and business collapsed and his home in Blackheath burned down. He embarked on a detox retreat to get his life back on track and that led him to his calling.
In 2013, he moved to Montenegro (travelling on a motorbike) and converted a property he owned into a five-star boutique retreat, having initially intended for it to be a detox centre. The secluded accommodation in Perast is a picture-perfect location and, after enduring some harrowing hardships, Ilić has succeeded in finding his place in life and rediscovering a level of happiness that seemed to have left him permanently only a decade ago.
Penalty shoot-outs are a cruel way to lose a football match, especially if only one player fluffs their lines from 12 yards. That was the misfortune which befell Gray in the 1998 First Division play-off final; at 7-6 in the shoot-out, he needed to score his kick but instead saw his effort saved by Ilić.
Sunderland born and bred, Gray spent 12 years at his boyhood club after breaking into the first team in 1992. He scored the Mackems’ first Premier League goal in 1996, but the season would end in relegation. However, a year after his play-off final heartbreak, he helped Sunderland back into the top flight and he had the rare honour of winning an England cap while playing second-tier football in April 1999. He was then part of a team that finished seventh in two consecutive Premier League seasons; those remain Sunderland’s best finishes in the division.
Gray’s local status and his commitment to the club ensured that he would be a popular figure with fans, although he fell foul of manager Mick McCarthy in his final season in 2003/04 when, following relegation from the Premier League, he turned up for training in a Ferrari, a move that McCarthy perceived as disrespectful towards club staff who faced potential redundancy. He later played for Celtic, Blackburn, Leeds, Wolves and Sheffield Wednesday before retiring in 2010.
While Gray was the villain of the piece on the day, he probably had a more fulfilling career afterwards than Mendonca or Ilić. After he finished his playing career, he took up occasional media work with the BBC and TalkSport.
Twenty-one years and a day after that extraordinary day at Wembley, Charlton and Sunderland lock horns again tomorrow afternoon in a play-off final, except this time it is at a new stadium on the same site and in the League One play-off final rather than the Division One (now Championship) showpiece. Surely it’s asking too much for another 4-4, but can any of those on the pitch on Sunday go down in history just as Mendonca, Ilić and Gray did in 1998?