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It is known as Sunderland’s Wembley curse up here in the North-East. And because no one was there to see if lifted last year, the hoodoo still exists in the minds of the majority.
In the wake of the club’s 1973 FA Cup victory over Leeds United – when Bob Stokoe’s Second Division underdogs beat the holders 1-0 – the Black Cats lost their next eight at the stadium, both old and new.
That run ended with a 1-0 win against Tranmere Rovers in the Football League Trophy 14 months ago. Played behind closed doors because of Covid-19, there has always been an element of a tree falling in a forest about that game – did it really happen?
Sunderland can end their Wembley curse when they take on Wycombe in the play-off final
By contrast, Sunderland will have 40,000 of their supporters present for Saturday’s League One play-off final versus Wycombe Wanderers. Among them will be the man who has lived that curse every day of his life.
David Corner was the 18-year-old defender thrown into the Sunderland side for the 1985 League Cup final, their first Wembley appearance since the heroics of ’73. But, from his mistake, Norwich City scored the game’s only goal.
David Corner made a mistake as Sunderland lost to Norwich in the 1985 League Cup final
Corner was attacked by a Sunderland fan outside a nightclub and was hospitalised for 12 days
‘It has followed me from that day to this. Every day for 37 years someone has mentioned it – in a shop, a pub, shouting across the street,’ Corner told Sportsmail.
‘We knew if we won that game, we’d go down as legends, you would be remembered forever. Unfortunately, I am, only for the wrong reasons.’
Corner’s story has been recreated in a play about his life, Cornered, revealing the abuse and bullying he suffered. He was attacked by a Sunderland fan outside a nightclub and hospitalised for 12 days with a fractured eye socket and broken cheekbone.
He was later punched in the mouth and left needing stitches, all because he did not kick the ball out of play and lost possession to John Deehan, leading to Asa Hartford’s shot deflecting in off defender Gordon Chisholm.
‘Every time a game is on TV at Wembley, I look over to that corner where I had the ball. Even this afternoon, I will look at that particular place on the pitch and wonder, “What would have happened if I’d kicked it out?”. Without a doubt, my life would have been different.’
Sunderland won the Papa John’s Trophy in 2021 but the game was played behind closed doors
Maybe, too, Sunderland’s own woeful run at Wembley would have taken a different course, although it is often forgotten that Clive Walker also missed a penalty in that game.
Former captain Gary Bennett played in three of those eight matches – Norwich in ’85, the 1-0 play-off loss to Swindon in 1990 and the 2-0 defeat by Liverpool in the FA Cup final two years later.
The defender scored an own goal against Swindon, albeit via an unfortunate deflection, but has not been subject to the same torment as Corner, in part because of a twist in the days after the game.
‘It was 1-0 but we were well beaten, we didn’t deserve to win,’ said Bennett. ‘Then, a week or so later, news broke that Swindon were going to be relegated back to Division Two because of illegal player payments. We were going up instead!
‘But it’s funny – the one time we got promoted we lost, and the one time we won, there was no one there!’
Michael Gray (R) missed a penalty as Sunderland lost the play-off final to Charlton in 1998
Even Bennett, a co-commentator on the BBC’s local station, was not allowed to attend last year because of the corporation’s Covid policy.
‘For myself and a lot of supporters, that “curse” still feels alive. I have been to every Wembley game, apart from that one. Saying that, I still love Wembley. Everyone wants to be there, I’m no different today. Remember, a lot of players and fans have never had that chance. It’s just unfortunate for us, they have all been defeats.’
The most famous of them all, perhaps, was the second of their three play-off finals in 1998, a penalty-shootout defeat by Charlton after a 4-4 draw. It is best remembered for a hat-trick by Charlton striker Clive Mendonca – a Sunderland-born supporter of the club – and Michael Gray missing the decisive spot-kick. Charlton keeper Sasa Ilic later revealed he had found a 10p coin on the pitch and flipped that to decide which way to dive for Gray’s penalty – another fateful happening.
Gray, a Sunderland lad like Corner, has also had to live with the pain and infamy of such a moment, another victim of his club’s Wembley jinx.
‘I’ve seen what it does to the player who misses the penalty which costs your club £50million,’ said team-mate Kevin Phillips. ‘Micky was distraught. He went missing for 10 days. We couldn’t contact him. It can hurt someone really badly.’
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He was, in fact, on holiday in Cyprus. Incredibly, so, too, was Mendonca, who told Sportsmail: ‘Who do I bump into? Micky Gray! He’s gone, “You’re the last person I want to see!”. But we had a drink and a laugh, although he said, “I had to get away from Sunderland, I just wanted to dig a hole and disappear”.’
Corner, Bennett and Gray have all come to live with their individual heartache. The healing process began for Gray in the dressing-room afterwards.
’It was silent and then our first-team coach Bobby Saxton said, “You’ve got to forget about it anyway because it was a c**p penalty’,’ recalled the former England left back.
‘Everybody burst out laughing, the atmosphere changed and Quinny (Niall Quinn) said, “Next season we’ll take this league by storm”. And we did.’
For Corner, the stage-play proved a ‘cathartic’ experience, his own involvement in the production and the popularity of it feeling much like ‘redemption’.
‘It was nasty for many years but people now, they are more respectful. They just want to know what it was like playing for Sunderland in a cup final.
‘I’ll be there today, I wouldn’t miss it. I just hope I’m not a bad omen. But it is one game, you can forget all of the other Wembley appearances for this.’
Beat Wycombe, and maybe that last sentence will finally apply to Corner.