My one piece of advice to Gustavo Poyet ahead of Sunday’s League Cup final is to ban sunbeds.
It sounds funny now but in 1997, it was responsible for my worst experience of Wembley when I was playing for Sheffield United in a play-off final against Crystal Palace.
They’d told us we were playing in an all-white kit and all the lads thought we were going to look the business turning out in front of the whole country at Wembley. The only problem was that for the pastier lads like myself, all white equalled completely pale so one of us had the bright idea of heading out for a sunbed a day or two before the final to try and add some colour to our complexion.
On the day I think it was about 30 degrees and as I lined up before the start I was thinking: ‘I might have got this a bit wrong’. The sweat was pouring down me and I was absolutely gone by half-time.
We lost the game to a last-minute David Hopkin goal and I blamed it all on the sunbed!
I never was much good in the heat and Wembley, where I have got a few happy memories from my international career, is an energy-sapping place at the best of times.
Preparation, as I found out to my cost that day, is key. Your head has to be right.
Luckily for Gus, he won’t have to worry about the temperatures on Sunday. Unfortunately he has the small matter of a Manchester City team who, in my opinion, are the most dangerous team in the Premier League.
I run through their team and from one to eleven you are struggling to find too many weaknesses in the players that are available to Manuel Pellegrini to play in this game.
They have strength in attack and they defend extremely well as well, so Gus has to have a game plan – and it has to work out better than the one on Saturday against Arsenal which flopped.
First things first: I really, really believe that Sunderland can win on Sunday. It is not a blind faith because of my Sunderland connections because I know how difficult it is going to be for the Black Cats against such a talented side on the kind of surface that is perfect for a team that likes to move the ball quickly and dominate possession. Manchester City are the favourites and deservedly so. But Sunderland are not going to Wembley as lambs to the slaughter.
To lift that trophy Sunderland are going to have to perform to the very best of their ability in every department that they can control and then hope that something goes for them: be that a bit of luck, a refereeing decision or maybe one or two of the Manchester City players having an uncharacteristic off-day. That is not beyond the realms of possibility in the Premier League this year. Every team has a weakness and Manchester City are no different: but Gus needs to have a plan to exploit it if Sunderland are given an opportunity.
Now I am someone who believes fervently in 4-4-2. I do think football goes through fads and fashions and I think Barcelona started something with their false number nines which every other team started to look to emulate in various different shapes and sizes.
I saw Sam Allardyce do it with West Ham this season! They got a great win at Tottenham with the system but then didn’t win for weeks. I say play to your strengths, and my feeling with Sunderland is that nine times out of 10 they should go two up front because they don’t score enough goals and their strikers are better suited to it.
Sunday would be the one occasion in 10 when I’d look at 4-5-1 and flooding the midfield.
Look at Wigan in the FA Cup final last season: they had a system which was 4-3-3 when they were in possession and 4-5-1 when Manchester City had the ball. It relies on your wingers doing a lot of running, but Fabio Borini on the left and Adam Johnson on the right are capable of putting in the short of shift that the system requires.
My worry with 4-4-2 is that if Sunderland try to match Manchester City they will naturally start to think about containing them. I mean, if you’re going up against Yaya Toure your priority is to stop him.
Whoever gets that job – be it Lee Cattermole, Jack Colback or Ki – they will be mainly concentrating on stopping the opposition and the scope for getting forward is limited. The beauty of the five across midfield on this occasion is that your wingers don’t necessarily have to do much defending because you’ve got the advantage in numbers.
The two weaknesses I can see with Manchester City are David Silva and maybe Martín Demichelis, if he plays.
Silva doesn’t tend to do much in the way of defending and tracking back so possibly there is a weak link there for a five-man midfield to exploit.
With Demichelis, I’d ask Jozy Altidore to make his life as difficult as possible.
Forget about Vincent Kompany. I always used to get frustrated with the big men I’d play alongside: I’d look at Dele Adebola and he’d always through instinct go against the stronger defender, almost as if he wanted the battle. I couldn’t understand that.
Now some people might look at my selection of him in the team they should play and wonder why after his last couple of performances. Steven Fletcher is more convincing for me but if it’s one up front, it’ll be Altidore.
I share those reservations but he’s a one-in-five player and Sunderland have to hope this is his day.
What a day it is going to be for Sunderland and I just hope they do themselves proud.