Clive Mendonca admits he ‘wanted to sign for Sunderland’ the season before his hat-trick help sink them in the greatest play-off final of all-time
Clive Mendonca will go down in Charlton Athletic history for scoring a hat-trick in the 1998 First Division play-off final against Sunderland, but he has revealed he nearly joined the opposition the season beforehand.
Prior to the final, Charlton beat Ipswich Town 1-0 in both legs of the semi-final. Mendonca, Charlton's prolific striker who had scored 25 goals in the league that season, was unavailable for the second match, though, the Englishman limited to an agonising watching brief from the bench against the Tractor Boys.
“I’ve never been so nervous at a game of football in my life,” Mendonca reminisces to FourFourTwo, 25 years on.
A back problem prevented Mendonca from lining up. Their £700,000 record signing would be ready for the play-off final, however – to take on the team he’d supported since childhood.
“I’d been struggling with my back, but I just knew we were playing Sunderland in the final. I’m a Sunderland lad. I was born in London, but I moved to Sunderland when I was two and was brought up there.
"I went to school in Sunderland; I played for Sunderland Boys and Durham County; I’d been a Sunderland fan all my life. Every team I played for, the first result I looked for was Sunderland. All of my mates are Sunderland. Everything I know.”
Mendonca had joined Charlton at the start of that season from Grimsby, who’d been relegated from the second tier.
“Really, I’d wanted to sign for Sunderland,” he admits. “I’d come down to Charlton, spoken to Alan Curbishley and was pretty happy with what he’d said. I’d heard that Sunderland wanted to sign me too, so I said to Curbs, ‘I think Sunderland want to sign us, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll sign with you’. It didn’t happen, so I thought, ‘I’ve got to look after myself – Charlton really want me, so I’ll go there’."
It seems Mendonca made the right decision, too. Game time in the north east might have been limited due to Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips' partnership at the time, while Charlton were eventually promoted to the Premier League at Sunderland's expense.
Indeed, Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties in the First Division play-off final in 1998, a game regarded as the best play-off final ever after it finished 4-4 after 120 minutes. Mendonca bagged a hat-trick in the match, though he wishes Sunderland didn't have to bear the brunt of his goalscoring exploits.
“It was an absolute pleasure to feature in a game like that,” Mendonca says. “But I wish I could have done it against any other team in the league. It’s just fate, how it worked out. It wasn’t easy. Some people never accept it, but I was simply doing my job the best I could.”