John Byrne remembers the slow crawl up the A19, starting out in Durham.
He recalls the supporters hanging from windows and tree branches and the building crescendo as they wound towards Sunderland, decked in club tracksuits and feeling slightly worse for wear on that dull May afternoon.
He can recount almost every single minute of that remarkable drive and remembers one thought cropping up time and time again as they passed friendly, smiling faces resplendent in red and white: “What if we’d brought the Cup with us? I think that is one of the most memorable experiences of my entire career,” Byrne tells The Journal, some 14 years on. The striker had become famous over the course of the 1992 FA Cup run for scoring in every round; none more crucial than a late equaliser against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge that kept Sunderland’s FA Cup flame burning.
He scored again in an emotionally charged replay to send the Rokerites into a semi-final against Norwich which they won to set up a fantastic final against Liverpool. Byrne should have scored again in the final – “13 minutes 20 seconds – not that I can remember it or anything” – but missed a gilt-edged chance to put Sunderland into the ascendancy.
Liverpool hopped off the canvas to strike twice in the second half, but just by reaching the final second-tier Sunderland – along with manager Malcolm Crosby – had etched their place into the club’s history.
“I will never forget it in my entire life,” he said.
“We got an open-topped bus ride for getting to the final and it was something that might have been a bit embarrassing for the lads because we didn’t feel we had anything to celebrate but then when you saw the crowds you realised why they had done it.
“It took forever to get along the road and by the time we got to Sunderland the crowds were incredible. I think there were one or two hangovers on the bus that day. It had been a late night drowning our sorrows and by the time we got on the bus I think we were ready to go again, to be honest!
“But I think it was ironically probably one of the biggest regrets of my life too because if we had the Cup with us it would have gone to another level really. I look at the game on Sunday and there is a little bit of jealousy there that this group of Sunderland players might get the chance to do that.
“It would be one heck of an experience for them if they managed to do it. I can’t imagine what the reception would be like in Sunderland.”
Byrne lives in Sussex these days, still summarising for the BBC on a part-time basis alongside a thriving career as a podiatrist.
It is not the most predictable route for a footballer to go down but Byrne, who is a Manchester United fan by birth, thoroughly enjoys his second calling. Without the shock of blonde hair (or “mullet”, as he self-flagellatingly refers to his former hair style) he doesn’t tend to get recognised much any more – definitely a good thing.
“When people find out who I am they just want to talk about football. That’s good fun but they sometimes forget why they’re there, which doesn’t always help them,” he says.
Just recently, he’s found his Sunderland connections have been recalled by a few people, though.
“I had someone ask me if they could get me tickets the other day,” he chuckles. “I couldn’t believe it! I’m trying to get some for myself so why they thought I’d be able to get one... But it’s nice to be remembered, even if they are after Wembley tickets.”
For Byrne it is the happiest memory but it is also one of the most frustrating.
In 1992 there was an ‘end of an era’ feeling hanging over Liverpool, who were helmed by Graeme Souness on his return from triple heart bypass surgery. The Reds were unsettled and uneasy under their new manager’s tutelage and they took a while to get into their stride.
Second Division Sunderland were in the ascendancy and had a huge opportunity.
“I watched it again recently and of course it’s a real story of what ifs,” he says. “What if I had scored on 13 minutes 20 seconds? Not that I’m counting of course but that’s where my video player always stops! Actually we played really, really well in that first half and opened them up a couple of times. We needed to take our opportunities and I fully admit that I should have scored mine really. I think after the first half they had a second wind and we never really got close to them.
“The second half was a bit of a cruel lesson for us really. You need to take your opportunities whoever you are playing against and I think they were still one of the best teams in the country at that time and they just passed the ball around us. We didn’t get much of a kick.”
Sunday brings an opportunity to right that wrong and Byrne believes Poyet, the former Brighton boss, is the man to inspire an upset. “He was someone who did really well at Brighton and I liked watching the way his teams play – even if he left under a bit of a shadow.
“I think Manchester City are obviously the favourites and probably rightly so as well but don’t write Sunderland off. With my Manchester United and Sunderland hats on I’m desperate for them to win it and do what we couldn’t quite do in 1992.”