348 days and about seven hours have passed since the shrill blast of Chris Foy’s whistle brought the sweet mercy of full-time at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderland had just stumbled to a stultifying draw against Norwich City and the best thing you could say about the game was that it was over. Martin O’Neill (pictured below) was to shuffle into his press conference, deliver a few mumbled pleasantries and appear completely unconvinced that a new dawn was about to break from the gloom that was enveloping the Stadium of Light.
Shortly afterwards, an incorrigible national newspaper columnist branded the club “Premier League driftwood”. It felt like Sunderland were beginning to circle the drain.
The last year has not been an upward trajectory. There has been no smooth progress and at times, in truth, it has felt like Ellis Short has been flying by the seat of his pants as Sunderland careered between euphoria and the depths of despair. But what cannot be disputed is that there is an energy about Sunderland again; Short’s successive thunderbolts having re-started the beating of the Black Cats’ heart.
It is this that offers the club its greatest hope of unseating a Manchester City side that has become increasingly confident about occasions like these. A squad worth a cool £375million count among their number a clutch of title winners both in England and in some of the best leagues in the world, and they gave Barcelona a very good game just a fortnight ago. The bookmakers offering odds of 9/1 on a Sunderland win do not appear particularly conservative when you consider the relative merits of the two line-ups.
Yet none of the 31,000 Sunderland supporters converging on Wembley in the next 48 hours will need to be reminded that football has a unique capacity to surprise. 9,000 of them were dragged through the mill at Old Trafford on a night that no doubt still has them blinking in disbelief to this day – a chaotic concoction of defiant defence and boldness under pressure that seemed a million miles away the day Norwich came to town.
The theme of Sunderland’s unlikely run to the final has been ‘Dare to Dream’ and it is rediscovering that sense of daring that has been the biggest success of the last year.
That process takes its final few steps on Sunday lunchtime, when Gus Poyet – clad in a Hugo Boss suit – walks out a Sunderland team that a few months ago was being derided as lazy and next-to-useless. By their own manager.
Whatever happens on Sunday, the journey has been worth it. The club feels different these days: more reflective and with a greater connection to the people who were so despondent a year ago. The talk of conquering Africa through sponsorship deals has been less vocal recently but a couple of announcements stand out: firstly, the price drop in season tickets next year which will make watching the club more affordable.
Secondly, the strident opposition to plans to make the Tyne-Wear derby a ‘bubble match’, which struck a chord with supporters who had chided the club for a supposed heavy-handed approach to those accused of persistent standing and swearing in the Stadium of Light. Both are excellent developments.
With a wave of goodwill behind them, Sunderland will attempt to do something that no North East club has done since their class of 1973 beat Leeds United – win at Wembley; 14 teams have tried it and on the face of it, the Black Cats have the slimmest chance of any of them.
But this team have already beaten Manchester City this season: a fact that Poyet has been hammering home to his players this week. They have been made to watch the first half of their Stadium of Light meeting with the Citizens and it has been pointed out to them what can happen if you narrow the pitch, close down the space, unsettle David Villa, isolate Yaya Toure and attempt to get in behind Vincent Kompany.
Sunderland have done all this and then some, rolling City over by taking their chance in the meeting between the two teams back in early November. Wes Brown and John O’Shea defended tigerishly on that day and Poyet must also point out to his players that they have improved markedly since then.
So, unfortunately, have Manchester City and there is a sense of the unknown about whether Poyet’s new possession-centric approach – which flopped worryingly against Arsenal – will be exposed on a Wembley pitch by a team that gratefully welcome Sergio Aguero back into the fold.
But anything is possible and this match is closer than the bookies would have you believe. This is not Bradford City’s David taking a swing at a Premier League goliath, and there is no reason for Sunderland not to harbour realistic dreams of winning this final. Poyet has tweaked his blueprint: his forward line has been re-imagined and issues salved.
A sub-plot of this final week has been whether supporters, players and managers should target Cup success or concentrate on Premier League survival.
Poyet’s priority is clear: to keep the club in the Premier League this year. Yet the Sunderland manager has canvassed opinion in the city he lives and accepts now that there is a bigger theme playing out here. Lifting a trophy, something that the Black Cats have not done for 41 years, would secure him a place in the club’s folklore.
Poyet does not want to think about a statue being struck in his honour, but he is fully aware of the legend of Bob Stokoe. “The run was impressive,” he smiled.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do, okay. I’m not going to promise you everything. I can’t say that I’m going to be calm, I can’t say that I’m going to jump up and down – I don’t know what I’m going to do because I don’t plan those things. But those are the special moments. Those are the moments that you talk about all the time.
“That’s why I don’t like to plan it otherwise it looks like you’re copying someone else. I remember Jose Mourinho running all the way around the Nou Camp. Me, I’m going to be myself.”
There may be no statue or win. But no one can accuse Sunderland of simply existing any more – and that feels like a significant victory.