Wednesday, January 22, 2014 was arguably the best defeat in Sunderland’s history.
When Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez found the net in the last minute of extra-time at Old Trafford, it seemed the Black Cats might suffer the cruellest of cup exits.
But the penalty shoot-out it brought about – surely one of the worst anyone is likely to have the misfortune to witness – went Sunderland’s way and a first Wembley cup final of the 21st Century was secured.
It was something of a mixed blessing. The League Cup final against Manchester City will live long in the memory but it, and a self-inflicted defeat at Hull City in the FA Cup a week later, seriously burst the Wearsiders’ bubble.
Only now, after seven gloriously unexpected points from three games, is Sunderland morale starting to be rebuilt. With the appointment of club legend Ryan Giggs as caretaker manager, a revitalised Red Devils will put it to the test this afternoon.
Vito Mannone, Sunderland’s Old Trafford hero, will return to the ground today dreaming of more heroics.
“It feels a bit like it did at the start of the year when we got on a really good run, and everything just snowballed from there,” says the Italian goalkeeper, who kept out Adnan Januzaj and Rafael da Silva’s spot-kicks in January.
“We were hoping we could achieve something similar at this stage of the season, and it looks like we have got ourselves going just in time.
“We lost a bit of shape and confidence in the last month or so. It has been a tough time because we had playing great before that, but that period is now at an end.
“It is normal to have difficult periods, especially after you have lost a final in the way we did. It was hard to take. But we have hit form, and now we just have to carry on. We have to keep working hard every day and go into each game with a winning mentality.”
Last week’s 4-0 win over Cardiff City lifted Sunderland out of the relegation zone with three matches to play (the sides below have just two). That, says Mannone, is significant.
“The next game takes us to Manchester United, and it’s a confidence boost to be going there out of the bottom three,” he says. “Everything is back in our own hands now, and that’s always the position you want to be in.
“We’ve had four great performances now because even before the Manchester City and Chelsea games (the former drawn, the latter improbably won), we played really well against Everton and were a bit unlucky. We played great at Man City and Chelsea, and then things finally clicked against Cardiff and we kept a clean sheet and scored four goals. Hopefully, that will take us into the next game with a really positive mood.”
Sunderland’s infuriating brilliance against the top teams – infuriating because it has not been matched against the lesser lights – means that while other teams at the bottom of the table seem to be mentally writing off certain matches, they can go to the home of the (soon-to-be-deposed) champions daring to dream again.
“I have some great memories of Old Trafford, and it will be really good to go back there,” says Mannone. “It’s just another game, but it’s a massive one because of where we are in the league and the memories of what we achieved at Old Trafford in the cup. We have had some big days away from home this season, so we have nothing to fear.
“I am sure their players will be thinking about the League Cup game a little bit too. They will not be able to ignore it completely.
“We are going there with nothing to fear because we know we can do it. We will just concentrate on playing our game, and see what happens.”
Coach Gustavo Poyet agrees those memories will be a factor.
“That achievement and celebration there brings with it a possibility for us to do well,” he comments. “That’s not saying we’re going to win because of it, of course.
“We lost the (League Cup) game (2-1), and nobody remembers that, but the way we finished and the celebrations afterwards gave us the feeling that we won that day.”
That Sunderland can even contemplate victory at Old Trafford late in a season they have spent mired at the wrong end of the table shows what a crazy campaign it has been. It has been crazier for them than for most.
“It’s the most up and down season I’ve experienced, that’s for sure,” says former Chelsea midfielder Poyet. “I don’t remember having a season like this.
“I’ve been in teams where we’ve been poor for a long time and fought relegation. I remember that in Spain, and even my last year at Spurs (as assistant manager) was quite difficult.
“Then I’ve been in places where you’re winning all the time and things go for you but I don’t remember ever having so many ups and downs as here.
“On top of that, when you’re the leader, the one who is responsible, who has to sort out things, that makes it a little more tough.”
But if Sunderland can just see off Norwich City, Fulham and Cardiff to stay up – they may already have enough points but in this of all seasons such a straightforward plotline seems unlikely – the stresses and strains will have all been worthwhile.
“I’d like to finish (the season) well,” comments Poyet. “The effort and what we’ve done is incredible. We’ve put ourselves in with a great chance of staying up. A couple of months ago it was a totally different situation. We just have to ensure our Premier League position for next year.
“Nothing has changed very much, apart from the confidence. The confidence is totally different, which you can feel all over the place. We have to cope with that, but in a different way.
“We have to make sure we’re still fighting and keep doing the same things we’ve been doing over the last few weeks.
“We have to maintain the balance of defending well but also playing to win the game.
“If we do, that’s it.”