When Sunderland's left-back stepped up to take the 14th kick of the penalty shoot out which decided the First Division play-off final, he carried the weight of his home city upon his shoulders. It showed.
His left-foot shot trundled invitingly towards the diving Sasa Ilic. And the Yugoslav goalkeeper duly grasped the winning ticket in what Bob Murray, Sunderland's chairman, had described as "a lottery with a pounds 10m jackpot."
In doing so, Ilic secured a future for himself and for his club in the Premiership. Six months ago he was so uncertain of his place in the scheme of things at The Valley he applied for a job as a fitness instructor at Putney Leisure Centre. It was the ultimate irony in a final overflowing with them - and with irresistible attacking football.
Gray, whose miss gave Charlton a 7-6 victory on penalties, was one of two Sunderland natives on the pitch. The other, Clive Mendonca, a fellow pupil of Castle View School and one-time star of the Sunderland Schools' team, scored three times against the club he supported as a boy on the Roker Park terraces - most crucially, the equaliser 13 minutes into extra time which took the match to penalties.
"As I came off the pitch, a few Sunderland supporters shouted: `Don't go back to Sunderland or we'll cut your throat,' " the Charlton striker said later. "To hear that was terrible, but they were just mindless idiots. Every club has them. I'm the biggest Sunderland fan in the world and gutted they won't be going up."
Not quite as gutted, though, as the Sunderland players who came from a goal behind to lead three times. But there was no way back for Peter Reid and his team when Ilic stopped Gray's penalty. It was cruel on the Sunderland manager, his players, not least the distraught Gray, and on the 40,000 Wearsiders in attendance. Another season of First Division slog lies ahead for them in their premier-class Stadium of Light.
For Charlton, the adventure of Highbury and Old Trafford awaits, and even the heartbroken Wembley losers could not begrudge Alan Curbishley and his underdogs the days they have earned in the sun. The minor miracle Curbishley has worked in south-east London was evident yesterday in a first half that Charlton controlled with supreme composure. In Mark Kinsella and Keith Jones they had the players to expose Sunderland's lack of pace in central midfield, and in Mendonca, a pounds 700,000 signing from Grimsby last summer, they had the man to exploit the half-chance that fell to them after 23 minutes.
Mark Bright headed on Keith Jones' right-wing throw and Mendonca wrong- footed Jody Craddock before rifling a low right-foot shot past Lionel Perez. It was the least Charlton deserved for their first-half efforts but the tide turned after the break - emphatically so.
The combative Kevin Ball and the assured Lee Clark assumed control in midfield and, in the 50th minute, Sunderland were level. Nicky Summerbee drove a right-wing corner low to the near post and Niall Quinn, having slipped free from Eddie Youds, stooped to squeeze a diving header in-between Mark Bowen and the upright.
It was the first goal Ilic had conceded in more than nine and a half games - 860 minutes, to be precise - and the second followed quickly. Ball won a 30-70 challenge outside the Charlton area and in doing so fed the ball through for Kevin Phillips to beat Ilic with a hooked shot.
It was Phillips' 35th goal of the season, breaking the post-war club record he held with one Brian Clough. Charlton were very nearly broken, too, as Sunderland swept into attacking overdrive but Quinn ballooned a chance and sent a header looping inches over.
Instead, after 71 minutes, Mendonca conjured a second goal to draw his team level. Controlling a long ball from Keith Jones, he again eluded Craddock and then buried a low shot past the despairing Perez.
Two minutes later, Clark crossed from wide on the right, Quinn chested down, and the Irishman fired a left-foot shot in-between Ilic and his right-hand post. It took the season's joint tally between Quinn and Phillips to 52 goals, 10 short of the club record partnership forged by Raich Carter and Bobby Gurney in Sunderland's last championship season, 1935-36.
With five minutes of regulation time remaining, the record books were out again. John Robinson hoisted a right-wing corner and Richard Rufus rose to head his first goal in five years as a Charlton player.
In extra time, the plot continued to twist. With 99 minutes on the clock, Sunderland had the Premiership prize within their grasp again, Summerbee threading a low right-foot shot beyond Ilic and into the Charlton net.
The celebrating folk from the North-east, however, had reckoned without one of their own. Four minutes later Craddock was beaten on the right by Steve Brown and the substitute's cross found Mendonca, who turned and claimed his hat-trick.
Worse was to follow for Sunderland. After 13 conversions from the spot came the unlucky penalty for Gray and for Wearside. It was a harsh way to separate two truly valiant teams.
Charlton Athletic (4-4-2): Ilic; Mills (Robinson, 76), Rufus, Youds, Bowen; Newton, Kinsella, K Jones, Heaney (S Jones, 64); Mendonca, Bright (Brown, 93).
Sunderland (4-4-2): Perez; Holloway, Craddock, Williams, Gray; Johnston, Clark (Rae, 100), Ball, Summerbee; Quinn, Phillips (Dichio, 74).
Referee: E Wolstenholme (Blackburn).Reuse content