Clive Mendonca has apologised to Sunderland fans – 21 years since his iconic gun celebration that led to him receiving death threats.
In a rare and exclusive interview, the former Charlton striker – who is a die-hard Sunderland fan – admitted it is the one regret from the 1998 Wembley play-off final that saw him plunder a hat-trick and deny his hometown club a place in the Premier League.
Schoolmate and close friend Michael Gray missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out for Peter Reid’s men, after Mendonca had scored his spot-kick following a famous 4-4 draw.
Almost exactly 21 years to the day, his true love Sunderland take on his old club Charlton at Wembley on Sunday, live on Sky Sports, with a place in the Championship up for grabs this time around.
Now 50, and back on Wearside where he works on the production line of the Nissan manufacturing plant, Mendonca told Sky Sports: “Being a Sunderland fan, it is the one thing I regret. I should not have done that.
Charlton vs S’land
May 26, 2019, 2:30pm
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“It was all emotion on the day and for that I apologise. It has taken 20 years, but I apologise for that now. I am one of you, please remember that.”
During his lap of honour at Wembley back in 1998 the striker was warned by sections of the Wearside support not to show his face in the North East again. One even threatened to cut his throat.
To this day, ‘Super Clive’ as he was affectionately known at The Valley, has never properly spoken about how that famous day at the national stadium shaped his life.
He said: “I lived on a rough estate [growing up in Sunderland] and there were all these rumours that I was going to get this and I was going to get that when I came back home.
“But I came back and walked into the pubs with my mates and everyone was sound. They all shook my hand and said ‘well played’. They realised I had a job to do and it was a relief.
“Lads still ask me about it all the time. In Nissan it is half Newcastle and half Sunderland, and it is funny – the Newcastle fans love me and the Sunderland fans hate me!
“I still get some mucky looks but it is all good banter. It was the best and worst day of my career – amazing to score a hat-trick at Wembley, but just a shame it was against the team I love.
“Most of my mates were at the match. If you watch the game back on TV you see me look at the camera and say ‘sorry Irksy, sorry mate’. That was to my pal on the final whistle.
“It should have been the greatest day of my life, but all I was thinking is ‘I’m going to get slaughtered off all my mates here’.”
Mendonca also reflects on a chance meeting with former schoolmate Gray just two weeks later on holiday. Looking back he thinks the whole episode was fate.
He revealed: “Micky and I went to the same school. Looking back, if there was any player you didn’t want to miss for Sunderland it was him.
“He was a legend at Sunderland and everyone loved him. But for him to miss was heartbreaking. I could see how much it affected him.
“A few weeks later my wife and I went to Ayia Napa on holiday. We were having a few drinks and I went to the toilet in the bar. And just as I walk in, who opens the toilet door? Micky Gray.
“He looked at me and said ‘you’re the last person I want to see right now!’ It was unbelievable to bump into each other like that. We had a good drink and he was still devastated. I tried my best to cheer him up that night.”
Mendonca, who is the nephew of former West Indies wicket-keeper Ivor Mendonca, was born in Islington but moved to Sunderland with his family aged two. It was his dream to pull on the home shirt at his beloved Roker Park.
And had it not been for then-Sunderland manager Reid signing Kevin Phillips instead, Mendonca could have got his wish and that emotional Wembley day could have been avoided.
“The previous summer I got a call from Peter Reid to say he wanted to sign me,” he said. “I went away on holiday and never heard back. My agent then contacted Sunderland and they never returned the call.
“As a footballer you have to look after yourself and as much as I really wanted to sign for Sunderland, I signed for Charlton.
“It is fate the way it worked out in the end, and a lot of people who know me say I got my own back. But it was not a personal thing for me, it was just the way things worked out for me on the day.
“My missus and my sister told me in the bar afterwards that they both had a tenner on me to score the first goal. If I had known I was 6/1 I would have told them to put a lot more than a tenner on!
“It was an unbelievable game and my confidence was high. I took every chance I had. But the thing that will stick out for me will be Richard Rufus’ goal for us to make it 3-3 in normal time.”
He added: “Rufus hadn’t scored in 175 games, so when he scored with three minutes to go I knew we would win, whatever happened – it was the defining moment of the game.
“Even when we went to penalties I honestly thought we would win. I had just scored a hat-trick and I was full of confidence. I was the penalty taker anyway.
“There was so much pressure, some of the lads just walked off the pitch saying they didn’t want to take one. But I was confident so I took the first one and scored.
“Not being big-headed but I was a decent striker. You work hard for your defining moments and that was my defining moment. I’ll never ever beat that as long as I live.”
So how did the man of the match celebrate the biggest achievement of his footballing life?
“I didn’t even drink the champagne,” he said. “I put the magnum on the bar for all the lads and just went to my bed.