By KEVIN NOLAN
They made Wembley their own, some 39,000 of them warmed by their love for Charlton Athletic, a marvellous old football club, whose history of soaring highs and plummeting lows are the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Down a congested Wembley Way they poured, chanting their mantras and warbling their songs. Once inside the stadium, they were gratified to discover that Sunderland had unwisely elected to wear a clerically inspired all-black strip, which meant that the entire ground was a familiar sea of red-and-white. So far so good.
Less than five minutes after kick-off, the music dramatically died as Naby Sarr and Dillon Phillips combined to present the Mackems with the kind of farcical own goal destined to be mercilessly re-hashed ad infinitum, had Charlton proceeded to lose this play-off final.
As Richard Cawley’s wingman, I’m happy to defer to the guvnor’s more sophisticated descriptive powers and allow him to usher you through the forensics of a right, royal ricket. I didn’t actually see it anyway, being busy at the time unnecessarily scribbling down the mundane details of Phillips’ competent save from Chris Maguire’s snapshot a moment or two previously.
The body blow was so sickening that the full-throated Valley Roar audibly faltered.
So too did the Addicks as the Wearsiders sought to press home their unexpected advantage.
The stricken Phillips, to his credit, maintained concentration and reacted alertly to keep out Grant Leadbitter’s fierce effort. And then, as Doncaster Rovers found out in the semi-final second leg, Charlton’s magnificent fans responded to adversity with a crescendo of defiance which positively demanded that order was restored before this game spiralled out of control.
There was no way of knowing at the time but Sunderland’s best chance had already come and gone. But they were still an important goal ahead.
Leading the fightback was diminutive Josh Cullen, the best player on the pitch by a country mile. The West Ham loanee foraged tirelessly, shouldered responsibility and, with stout support from old hand Darren Pratley, inspired Charlton’s recovery.
Like fellow loanee Krystian Bielik, Cullen has bought into the team ethos created by Lee Bowyer and warms the cockles with his wholehearted commitment to the cause.
Wherever they wind up next season, Cullen and Arsenal’s Bielik are indelibly linked to a resilient, resourceful side, which simply doesn’t know how to quit. Their exploits are already legendary.
Recruited from Rotherham United in January, Ben Purrington, it’s fair to say, is an unsung Addick.
Sensible and consistent, he stepped in for the injured Lewis Page and has made the left-back position his own.
Just past the half hour, he chose the perfect time to score his first-ever senior league goal, arriving at the far post to convert yet another of those shrewdly-directed low crosses which have become Lyle Taylor’s speciality
For an account of the build-up etc, again you’re better off relying on Richard’s keener eyesight. It was all a blur to me.
With chances rare, extra-time and even dreaded penalties were looming when Patrick Bauer, without a goal to his name this season, pounced on a loose ball and smashed home a winner – off some Sunderland bloke’s knee – so late there was time only for their broken opponents to kick off.
Referee Andy Madley’s final whistle brought with it not only pandemonium on the terraces but an outbreak of regrettable partisanship in the press box, where two Nolans are said to have taken diabolical liberties with the accepted code of neutrality.
There is in existence, apparently, film of our particularly spirited rendition of “Red Red Robin”. We deny everything, of course, but promise to tidy up our act for the Championship.