Adam Johnson believes Sunderland have a real opportunity to reach Wembley for the first time in 22 years – but he would rather stay in the Premier League than win a trophy.
To do that the former Manchester City winger wants to see his side consistently reproduce Tuesday’s performance. New recruits will help, but Brighton and Hove Albion seem determined to frustrate their efforts to sign Liam Bridcutt.
The Black Cats beat Manchester United 2-1 at the Stadium of Light in the first leg of the League Cup semi-finals. But defeating relegation rivals Fulham on Saturday is a higher priority. “It’s just one game in the season, you play in the Premier League for a full season,” Johnson said of the possibility of winning Sunderland’s first major trophy since 1973. “It’s much more important to me personally. It’s about being a Premier League footballer.”
Birmingham City and Wigan Athletic have won domestic trophies this decade – the League and FA Cups respectively – only to be relegated that season.
Sunderland have beaten both Manchester clubs this term, as well as Chelsea and Everton, but not any team in the lower half of the table they sit bottom of. How to replicate such performances in more humdrum games is the challenge facing the Black Cats.
“We seem to do it in the cups but we can’t quite seem to do it in the league,” Middlesbrough product Johnson acknowledged. “We’ve had a few good performances in the league, we’re just not quite consistent.
“It’s important to just go out there again and do the same thing and hope it comes.
“Consistency is the main thing. That’s why the top teams are the best, they’re the most consistent. That’s the hardest thing in football, winning game after game after game, especially in this league – and the cups – with the quality of teams around us.
“We just have to keep going. Now we put the cup to one side and concentrate on the league. That’s what it’s all about, you want to be playing in every competition.
“Maybe there’s less pressure in the cups for the lads. You come into the games with nothing to lose, but I think it’s important we try and take that form into the league and if we can play with that bit of freedom and not be scared to lose the game and go for it, I think we’ll be all right.
“Over the years teams who have struggled have tended to do well in the cups, so that’s hardly a coincidence I don’t think. You need to get away from the league but it’s important we try to do as well as we can in both of them.”
Before the game coach Gustavo Poyet had described it as a “nice” one in “a nightmare season.”
“I wouldn’t say it was really enjoyable, it was difficult,” Johnson commented. “It’s nice at the final whistle but while you’re there it feels like any other game to be won.
“Now we’ve still got the hardest task ahead of us going to Old Trafford. It’s still a difficult place to go whatever sort of team United are now. We’ve just got to go there and try and play our game and try to attack them.”
With the Red Devils having lost five home matches already this season – including four of their last six – Sunderland are well placed for the January 22 return.
“Going to Old Trafford down (in the tie) was going to be difficult, so we’ve got something to hold onto now, and that was our main aim,” said Johnson. “They’d lost the last couple of games. The best time to play United is probably now, and I think we made the most of that. It’s still going to be difficult, but we’ll go there now with a lead and it gives us something to play with.
“Semi-finals are big games, almost the best games to play. I think it brings the best out of players like myself. I play better in the bigger games, so just to come on (as a substitute) and play a part was good (winning the penalty for Fabio Borini’s deciding goal).
“I thought I’d get a bit of stick (from the away fans). There’ll be worse to come at Old Trafford!”
Theo Walcott’s season-ending knee injury has opened a place for a right winger in England’s World Cup squad, but Johnson is pessimistic about his chances of taking it.
“I’m probably too far away now,” he reflected. “I think his mind (manager Roy Hodgson)’s made up. He’s used 30-odd players and I haven’t been one of them. But I won’t give up.
“Playing in big games against big teams helps. Hopefully he (manager Roy Hodgson) had someone watching. It’s always going to be in the back of your mind to go to a World Cup having been involved with England for a few years until I signed for Sunderland. It’s still difficult but you never know, stranger things have happened.”
Having turned down Sunderland’s £2.5m bid for Bridcutt, Brighton confirmed they have now refused the 24-year-old’s transfer request.
“Brighton and Hove Albion can confirm that a transfer request from Liam Bridcutt was received (on Tuesday) afternoon and subsequently has been rejected by the club,” they confirmed.
The Black Cats also have an interest in winger Will Buckley.