Are there lessons to be learned from Sunderland’s Wembley history?
As he seeks to try to eke out every advantage possible for his red-and-white underdogs, perhaps Gus Poyet will be looking to Cup finals past for a bit of inspiration. Or even lessons in how not to do it.
In 1985, one of Len Ashurst’s biggest mistakes in the run-up to Wembley was changing Sunderland’s tactics before their Milk Cup day of destiny.
All the way through the season, Sunderland had played with a flat back four. Responding to defeat the week before the game with Norwich, he switched to a sweeper, three across the back and Sunderland never seemed to cope with the alteration that the manager had made to the team that had made it to Wembley.
Gus Poyet, take heed, because for all of the talk of ripping up his red-and-white team sheet in the wake of Sunderland’s paltry performance at Arsenal, the time might not be nigh for the sort of wholesale changes that some are advocating.
A left-field option available to the Uruguyan is to bring Emanuele Giaccherini in from the cold for the white-hot Wembley clash. That would require a complete re-write of Poyet’s tactical blueprint and more of a reliance on speed and guile than there would be if Jozy Altidore – a more traditional, battering-ram option – gets the nod.
For Brian Atkinson, one of the veterans of 1992, the key to that run was momentum.
“Port Vale was the third round, then we played Oxford away. We weren’t doing great in our league at the time but it was just momentum,” he said.
“We had a bit of luck at times but we had quality as well – John Byrne scoring in every round except the final. Tony Norman in goal.
“I had people ringing me up asking if I could get them tickets, loads of people. It’s a bit like that now.
“But we just got taken out the way and I treated it like it was just another game because I was a young lad. If it had happened later on in my career I’d have realised what it was all about.
“It was probably a good thing at the time but a bad thing as well because you didn’t realise what was happening.”
So if a keen sense of occasion is key, so is the patience you have to show when you’re up against a team that is better with the ball than you are.
Atkinson recalls: “The first time I watched the final was probably two months ago. At one of the places I work one of the lads found it on YouTube so we started watching it. I didn’t realise how well we did in the first half. John Byrne had an excellent chance.
“The only thing I remember was the second half, I just never got a touch. As soon as you got there, the ball was gone. They scored at the right times and their class and their experience told. Wembley’s a big pitch if you don’t have the ball.”
A final lesson from the past for Poyet? A bit of togetherness and community spirit can take you a long way.
Another veteran of 1992, Martin Gray, recalls: “It’s got that really good feel about it now. You’ve got to keep them together. It’s like Darlington. Although we’ve got a much smaller fanbase it’s the same importance. It’s their club.
“You’ve got to be made to feel part of it. One thing we can do better at the lower levels is to be more of a community. We can socialise with them, and players enjoy being around the fans.
“The media don’t get chance to speak to all the players now. In 1992 it was just an open forum, before the final you could speak to whoever you want.
“The game’s fallen short with that. The media’s job is twice as hard drumming up interest. I don’t know if some of the modern players don’t quite like that. Your old-school players, like Shay Given or whoever, are still happy to talk to the media but the modern game’s changed and certain players and managers have.”