Gary Bennett has one piece of advice for Gustavo Poyet ahead of this week’s League Cup final: Don’t go changing.
Against Southampton in the FA Cup, Poyet broke his customary 4-1-4-1 formation to trial a diamond midfield.
It was the first time Sunderland had started with two up front since the December 7 visit of Tottenham Hotspur and it worked. Southampton were beaten 1-0, booking an FA Cup quarter-final at Hull City a week on Sunday.
After the 4-1 pasting his side took at Arsenal on Saturday, back in 4-1-4-1, Poyet was talking darkly about tearing up his best-laid plans for Wembley.
“It was not a good day for the team I use against the top teams,” said the angry Uruguayan as he conducted his post-match post-mortem in the Ashburton Grove press room.
But Bennett still remembers the last time Sunderland played in a League Cup final, against Norwich City in 1985, and is hoping the current manager does not fall into the same trap then-manager Len Ashurst did.
“We went into that game and believed that we could win,” recalls Bennett, who started his career at Manchester City without ever playing for his home town club.
“A week before we had beaten them (Norwich) at their own ground (3-1) so it was really disappointing that we couldn’t do it again.
“There were a few things around that game that were disappointing. We had a bit of a different formation, Stuart Elliott was missing. He was suspended.
“Barry Venison skippered the side and we went to three central defenders. It was me, (Gordon) Chisholm and David Corner, and Colin West was left out.
“It was taking something away from us having three central defenders. We were used to playing 4-4-2. Howard Gayle, who had done really well in the run up to the final, was on the bench which was unfortunate because he was a good player and he offered us a lot.
“All of a sudden we’ve got to adapt to this new system. It was something new and obviously it didn’t work on the day.”
Chisholm ended up being the unwitting villain of the piece as Asa Hartford’s 46th-minute shot bounced in off his body for the only goal of the game. When Clive Walker missed a second-half penalty, that was the only goal of the game.
Not that former centre-back Bennett is reading too much into Poyet’s post-match comments in north London. Sunderland’s coach claimed only Lee Cattermole, rested that day, was sure of his place this week but Bennett thinks he was being over-dramatic.
“We’re talking about changes after Arsenal but I think he still knows seven or eight or even nine who will play at Wembley,” he says. “He won’t change it that much and he’s right not to.
“Maybe it’s not a bad thing. Maybe they have got the bad game out of their system. If there was going to be an off-day, maybe it is no bad thing that they’ve got it out of the way the week before Wembley rather than the week of the game.”
Bennett is the only man to have played in three Wembley cup finals for Sunderland, but the BBC Radio Newcastle pundit is not expecting a repeat of the club’s only previous League Cup final.
“I think the situation is different to 1985,” he says.
“Things were going on behind the scenes with ticket allocations, we were arguing about bonuses and there was the boot deal as well.
“The club had a boot deal with Nike but some of the players were with Puma or Adidas and the word was if we didn’t wear the Nike boots we wouldn’t play. We reached a compromise but it was unsettling – hardly the perfect preparation.
“You have to prepare properly. It’s all about making sure the preparation is right.
“This is a hell of an opportunity for everyone. Even the lads in the media will be looking forward to it – I will because it’s Wembley and it’s a cup final.”
A mix-up meant Bennett came away from the 1992 FA Cup final with a winner’s medal which he quickly had to swap, while the 1990 Second Division play-off final defeat to Swindon Town had a happy ending too when the Rokerites took the Robins’ place in the top flight as a punishment for financial irregularities by the winners.
Having never tasted victory under what was then the Twin Towers, Bennett is unfortunately well qualified to talk about what a bittersweet experience it can be being on the losing side in a cup final.
“Obviously when you go to a final you want to win,” he says. “But at the end of the day I think getting there in and itself is a good thing. It is every player’s dream to play at Wembley.
“If you think about playing at the top level that is what you want to do: play at Wembley.
“You talk to supporters and it is the thing they remember is that Wembley trip.”
Rokerite trumped by brother
Gary Bennett may have made more Wembley appearances than anyone else in Sunderland history but when it comes to family bragging rights, he has to settle for second place.
Like Gary, brother Dave started his playing career with
Manchester City. Dave was part of the City side famously undone by Tottenham Hotspur’s Ricky Villa in the 1981 FA Cup final replay.
But the midfielder had his revenge six years later.
He was man of the match for Coventry City as they pulled off one of the great Wembley shocks, beating Spurs 3-2 in the 1987 final.
Bennett cancelled out Clive Allen’s second-minute opener and made Keith Houchen’s famous diving header.
“I’ve got mixed feelings actually,” says the veteran of 442 Sunderland appearances when he compares careers with his elder brother.
“I’d love to have done what my brother did and feel the joy of winning at the most famous ground in the world.
“But I’m still proud of my achievements.
“I’m the only Sunderland player ever to have appeared in a League Cup final and an FA Cup final for the club.
“And not many footballers have been there three times in seven years.”
Bennett did get his hands on an FA Cup winners’ medal – just not for very long.
“We lost the FA Cup final 2-0 to Liverpool but were given the wrong medals by mistake,” he recalls.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened the box and saw what was inside.
“By the time, we’d come down from the Royal Box, Liverpool were being presented with runners-up medals.
“We had to hand them over on the pitch – I swapped with Steve McManaman – but at least I can say I got my hands on a winners’ medal if only for one minute!”