MICHAEL GRAY thought he had finally escaped his play-off penalty hell until he walked into a bar in Ayia Napa.
Having been hounded at home after missing his sudden-death spot-kick in the 1998 shootout defeat to Charlton, the Sunderland defender was holed up at boss Peter Reid’s house before seeking solace on holiday.
Getty Images – Getty7 Michael Gray's suffered play-off heartbreak for boyhood club Sunderland after missing the crucial penalty
Getty – Contributor7 Gray's misery was made worse when he met Charlton's hat-trick hero Clive Mendonca on holiday
Only who should Gray bump into when he arrived at the Cyprus party resort but Clive Mendonca, his former schoolmate, who had just scored a Wembley hat-trick against him.
Ahead of Sunderland's League One play-off final with Charlton on Sunday, he told SunSport: “I went to Ayia Napa with a few of the lads from Sunderland, just to try and get away from things.
“I walked into the square and one of the first pubs I went into, Clive was sat at the back of the bar with his wife.
“I was like, ‘This is not for real!’ – but I went across, shook his hand and had a beer with him.
“I just said to him, ‘You were brilliant on the day – it was your time, not ours.'”
Gray’s tale is just one of a number of stories to come out from a classic which has been remembered as one of the best games ever played at the old Wembley.
Mendonca scored a solo opener for Charlton in that Division One play-off final, but Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips hit back for Sunderland in the second half.
Mackem Mendonca then levelled for the Addicks before Quinn scored again with what looked like the winner.
But five minutes from time, Sunderland stopper Lionel Perez inexplicably rushed off his line from a corner, allowing Richard Rufus to head in his first senior goal and force extra-time.
Mendonca, who now works at the Nissan plant IN Sunderland, said: “The defining moment of that day was Rufus scoring.
“After that, I just thought we would win that game no matter what.”
Nicky Summerbee actually put Sunderland back ahead in extra-time.
But Mendonca equalised to complete his famous treble and take the tie to penalties.
The hat-trick hero then stuck the first spot-kick away and celebrated with his iconic ‘gun’ pose.
But Mendonca, who received death threats from Sunderland fans after the game, admitted: “That’s the one thing I regret. Being a Sunderland fan, I shouldn’t have done that.
“It’s taken me 20 years, but I apologise for that.
“It was the best and worst day of my career.
“It was great to score the hat-trick but unfortunately it was against the team I love.
“I was just thinking inside, ‘I’m going to get slaughtered off all of my mates’.
“The summer before, I actually got a phone call from Peter Reid saying he wanted to sign me, so I thought I would be playing for Sunderland that season.
“But Sunderland didn’t get back in touch, so I ended up signing for Charlton – and it’s fate the way it worked out.”
PENALTY PENNY LUCK
After Mendonca’s penalty, 12 more successful spot-kicks were shared.
So it all came down to Gray against Charlton keeper Sasa Ilic – and, quite literally, a toss of a coin.
Ilic, speaking to SunSport from Montenegro where he runs boutique hotel Monte Bay Retreat, revealed: “I was diving to my left, diving to my right, but they kept hitting the top corners and it got to the point where I thought, ‘What now?’.
“A couple of penalties before Gray’s, I saw a 10p coin on the floor.
“And I thought I might as well flick it to decide which way to dive because I had no idea where they were going to put the ball next.
“So for Gray’s, I flicked it on heads and that was the signal for me to dive to my left – and luckily that was the direction he put the ball.”
Ilic celebrated his save by running towards his team-mates and spreading out flat on his back, sparking a huge player pile-up.
And he smiled: “I lost my breath – it took them a while to get off me!
“But I think I could have lifted the whole team that day because I was flying.
“The adrenaline pumping through my veins made me feel like Superman.”
Ilic’s magic moment capped a remarkable rise, having been playing in non-league for St Leonards in Hastings just a year earlier, after fleeing war-torn Serbia.
He explained: “After one season in non-league, I went to Charlton’s training ground and literally knocked on the door and asked for Alan Curbishley.
“I told him I was the best goalkeeper in the world and asked him for a trial.
“I walked in like I owned the place even though I was sleeping on my sister’s couch in Putney at the time.
“But a few months later, I found myself at Wembley, saving the penalty that took Charlton to the Premier League.
“Coming from where I came from, it was just a dream come true – it was one of those rags to riches stories.
“It’s nice to be called a legend and be a part of history.”
Ilic is flying over to be at Wembley on Sunday, and he will be joined by Gray, who joked he will “give him a kick up the backside” if he sees him.
Gray, who is working as a Sky Sports pundit for the game, added: “If it goes to penalties, I’m sure the cameras will pan to the studio – but I’ll be hidden under a bench somewhere!
“I have been reminded of that miss pretty much every three days for the last 21 years.
“I didn’t want to take one. As soon as I took it, I knew it wasn’t a good contact.
“And when I saw Sasa diving the right way, I was like, ‘Oh goodness me, that’s it, another season in Division One’.
Getty Images – Getty7 Mendonca scored his penalty in the shootout and celebrated with his 'gun' pose against his beloved Black Cats
7 Sasa Ilic flipped a 10p coin to decide which way to dive for Gray's penalty and made the save
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“I just wanted the ground to swallow me up. It was heart-wrenching.
“But I remember 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’.
“Everybody burst out laughing, the atmosphere changed and Quinny then said, ‘Next season we’ll take this league by storm – and we did’.”
Getty Images – Getty7 The topsy-turvy clash was one of the greatest games played at the old Wembley but ended in pain for Sunderland
Getty – Contributor7 Ilic runs with his arms wide open as his incredible dream of playing in the Premier League became a reality
Getty Images – Getty7 Charlton will be hoping there are similar scenes to this pile on come Sunday afternoon when they take on Sunderland for a place in the Championship