THERE are 5,000 reasons why Martin O’Neill must take the FA Cup seriously in this, of all years.
Forty years on from the last time Sunderland lifted the famous trophy, the Black Cats pitch up in Bolton this afternoon for a distinctly awkward first staging point of this year’s FA Cup campaign.
That the team will be backed by a veritable army of travelling Sunderland supporters says it all. This competition means something to O’Neill’s people – and given the faith they have invested in him of late, he cannot afford to ignore that.
To be fair, there were a couple of subtle clues from the boss that he shares that belief. First of all, he actually proffered some injury news to the waiting Press pack – something of a first.
Without prompting, he revealed that Stephane Sessegnon and Danny Rose might not be fit to play. Given that previous weeks have seen him respond to injury queries with a straight bat which Geoffrey Boycott would be proud of it, we are safe to assume it was a deliberate ploy to head off suggestions of a weakened team if both are absent.
Secondly, he sought out Sunderland’s Press officer after the conclusion of the media conference to verify that there really would be 5,000 in the away end at the Reebok. His eyes widened when it was confirmed that the allocation had been sold out.
“Of course it’s a priority to the fans,” O’Neill said. “You don’t want to be letting people down, for sure.
“We’ll give it everything we’ve got, whatever side we’ve got. Even if I was in a position to rotate more, I’d still want to give it the respect it was due.
“Ellis (Short) hasn’t really spoken to me about it but I want to take it seriously from my own experience of last season and what it can do.”
As far as anniversaries go, 40 is not all that special but it’s a nice round number and for those who believe in omens, it might be a portent for a decent Cup run.
On the negative side, it also drives home just how lean times have been ever since. That 1973 triumph remains indelibly marked in the club’s history books – and always will, thanks to the bronze bust of Bob Stokoe’s wild celebration at full-time – but will the Black Cats ever repeat the feat?
They have come close on occasion, and an appearance in the final in 1992, as well as the heartbreak of semi-final defeat to Millwall, are confirmation that they can make an impact, even in the modern era.
Last year’s last eight appearance was further proof, although actually winning it would be the stuff of legend.
O’Neill says: “It would be mean everything. More so than ever before. The very fact that it is 40 years tells you everything.
“They’ve been obviously crying out for it. It’s hard to believe that a club like Sunderland – or Newcastle, for that matter – can go that length of time without winning a trophy.
“When you think about it, it’s remarkable. I think that the 40 years should have an impact on us this year.
“Every year that Sunderland participate it seems to get further and further away. Last year was a great effort indeed but the thought of what those players achieved 40 years ago should give you some sort of ambition.”
In previous years, the allure of the Cup has been dulled – not so much by the Premier League’s heavyweights but by the division’s middleweights who might chose to rest players to protect their top-flight status.
Bolton used to do it under Sam Allardyce, while Sunderland have not been averse to rotating their team in the early rounds. O’Neill may be forced into changes, but he is a manager who still rates the competition as one of the finest in world football.
He said: “I think it would be fair to say in most people’s eyes it has lost some of its sheen, primarily because the Premier League is the be all and end all of everything. Let me put it this way, major football clubs prioritise now.
“Look at Manchester United a few years ago – and to be fair it wasn’t their fault, they were asked not to participate in it. It’s taken a bit of a knocking over the last ten or 12 years for all those reasons. But it’s still a great, great competition – one of the best.
“It doesn’t have the old ring to it that it used to. In the third round, everyone crowded round the TV to hear the draw and the stadiums were full.
“Now you might be going to stadiums that are three quarters full. It’s a bit of a shame but that’s the way it is.
“For me it still retains its aura. It’s a fantastic competition. If you saw the atmosphere last season when we went on a bit of a run – the atmosphere for the Everton replay was something to behold.
“We’ll try our utmost if we can but you can equally go out in the third round, so it’s difficult.”