Rotation is Gustavo Poyet's answer to the great cup conundrum

How seriously to take the cups is a question for every modern manager, even Gustavo Poyet is opting for squad rotation today

Gus Poyet, Sunderland's head coach
Gus Poyet, Sunderland's head coach

The cup conundrum has long been a headache for Premier League managers.

Back in the day, it was simple enough. If there was a match to be played, you pushed your best 11 players out and left them to deal with it.

In this era of squad football and financial rewards which make relegation a threat to the very survival of clubs, it has become a lot less straightforward.

Wigan Athletic and Birmingham City have picked up major trophies this decade, only for the massive come-down of demotion.

On the other hand, clubs such as Newcastle United have been pilloried for turning their noses up at a bit of cup glory. Paul Lambert is quite rightly still living down his comments of a few weeks ago that the FA Cup was a distraction most top-flight managers could do without. Gustavo Poyet has been the patron saint of those still clinging to the romance of cup football, fielding his strongest side while mired in a relegation battle and making it all the way to Wembley. Today, though, even he will send a weakened team out in the FA Cup.

Kidderminster Harriers, the only non-league side left in the competition, can expect to face a side featuring as many as ten changes from that which saw off Manchester United in Wednesday’s League Cup semi-final.

Sunderland’s own “treble” – of two cups and Premier League survival – is probably asking too much.

“I’m not even thinking about it,” says Poyet, tickled by the suggestion.

“It’s very dangerous to think about that. If we think too much about the (League Cup) final, you can pay the price in the league.

“Is the squad good enough for the ‘treble’? I’ll tell you after today.”

Facing non-league opposition gives Poyet the opportunity to try out players he has not dared throw into the cut and thrust of a Premier League survival battle.

Duncan Watmore and El-Hadji Ba made debuts at home to Carlisle United in round three and are set to feature again today.

Watmore in particular has been getting those who watch Sunderland’s reserves excited. “He brings something unique and you don’t find that kind of player often,” said Poyet.

“I love him. I saw it in the under-21s when I first started working here, but you need to be careful putting him in there when it’s difficult for us. In this type of game you can put him in there.”

Today’s debutants will be January signings Santiago Vergini and Oscar Ustari, while fringe men such as Ondrej Celustka, Valentin Roberge and Craig Gardner will be told to state their case.

If it looks like a slap in the face for the constantly-undermined FA Cup, Poyet is keen to say it is not.

He insisted: “I’d like a cup run, but I just want the players to do well for themselves and for the fans and to win the game.

“I did (prioritise the league) once in my time at Brighton when we needed to get promotion (from League One) and it created a bit of up and down.

“We lost in two cup competitions early on, and it didn’t help. We were on a great run and we lost to a smaller team and that brought too many questions and the players who weren’t playing weren’t happy.

“I went the other way in the FA Cup, I preferred to use the FA Cup as a fillip.”

As the excitement on Wearside in the last few days has shown, the League Cup can prove just as effective a shot in the arm.

No one knows the benefits of Wembley glory better than Jimmy Montgomery, immortalised as the goalkeeping hero of Sunderland’s last major trophy success, in the 1973 FA Cup final.

He said: “I know Sunderland supporters and a trip to Wembley is what they have been craving for years.

“From a club point of view we’ve go to hope it will keep the momentum going in the league as well. Winning games can give you momentum going into the league. Long may it continue.

“It is difficult to reach a final. It might have been a long time, but there are a lot of clubs out there all trying to do the same.

“There are all these Premier League sides – top-class ones some of them – so you know we are not ever going to win the Premier League – so you have to live for the FA Cup and Capital One Cup.

“I can never understand why there are so many clubs who don’t take it as seriously as they should. This can make a season special.

“We are in the final. OK, we are playing Manchester City, a fantastic side, but I always remember us saying that about Leeds.

“Wembley is fantastic for the lads. Just being there without playing is an absolute sensation. They have to go there and enjoy it.

“The comparison can be made with 1973.

“Leeds were the best side in the land that year, Manchester City are probably the best side in the land right now.

“The comparison will be made. We went down as underdogs, you couldn’t get a price on us.

“We are there again this year and there’s no reason why this group of players can’t surprise the country again.”


David Whetstone
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