Sunderland’s most loyal supporters were given a diamond for Valentine’s Day.
It was a day late and not something they should not get used to, but at least there was an attempt to spice things up.
For the first time in a long while, Gustavo Poyet broke from his 4-1-4-1 formation to try something different. Lee Cattermole sat at the base of the midfield, Craig Gardner at its apex, flanked by Sebastian Larsson and Emanuele Giaccherini.
Fabio Borini was handed a first start down the middle under Poyet, Ignacio Scocco his maiden appearance of any kind.
It worked. Sunderland are a game away from a second trip to Wembley. But only up to a point.
It is a formation which does not make proper use of the Black Cats’ best player at the moment, winger Adam Johnson. But it is nice to know that if Plan A is not working, Sunderland are thinking about a Plan B.
After conflicting messages in the second half of the week about the strength of the side he would pick, no one was surprised to see Poyet err on the side of indifference towards the FA Cup. It is why less than 17,000 took up the £15 ticket offer to head into the miserable weather and watch a lunchtime kick-off.
The nine new faces did... okay. Few played themselves in or out of contention for a starting place. Cattermole looked good for a man with little recent football, and is an option if Poyet wants a more aggressive midfield against Arsenal’s artists.
Gardner showed he is always good for a goal, but technically unsuited to a team so heavily built around possession. He might find he is still seen as an option from the bench.
Larsson’s all-round game was good, though his set-pieces were not.
Oscar Ustari was hardly over-worked but made a decent first-half save from James Ward-Prowse and took a couple of crosses well – normally the Achilles heel for those playing English football for the first time. But he would needed to have been bombarded by Southampton to show he was better than Vito Mannone.
A clever reverse pass which was cut out early on apart, Scocco suffered from a lack of service and made minimal impact. This was 68 minutes towards getting into a position to challenge for the starting XI.
The leaden-footed Andrea Dossena reminded us why it was so important to sign Marcos Alonso and Giaccherini that for all his talent he cannot force Poyet to reshape the team around him – even on days like Saturday. He would have loved the Gardner role too.
Connor Wickham looked lively and confident from the bench but his finishing and decision-making were not Premier League standard.
A good run from his own half ended in a shot dragged off target when Borini was better placed. When Larsson crossed from the right he could not get enough on it, and Victor Wanyama put in an excellent block after Borini picked him out in the 90th minute. Ultimately all that mattered was that Sunderland won. They have more wins – eight – in this season’s cups than the Premier League.
It was a deserved victory even if the Black Cats got lucky.
Rickie Lambert produced an incredible miss in the 82nd-minute. That he failed to hit the target when Nathaniel Clyne’s cross picked him out three yards from goal was hard enough to get your head around, but the fact the England striker managed to put it so far over the bar was incredible. If Southampton could point to that, Sunderland could argue they ought to have had a 13th-minute penalty and a 30th-minute goal.
Luke Shaw tried to shoulder-charge Borini but by the time he got there, it turned into a shove in his back. Mike Dean ought to have pointed to the penalty spot.
Kelvin Davis – taunted by his former fans all day – was very lucky Darren Cann flagged Borini offside when he somehow let the Italian’s shot squirm under him.
Where the Black Cats really got lucky was in Southampton’s astonishingly lukewarm attitude to the game.
At kick-off, Newcastle United were the only team in the Premier League with nothing to play for this season. The Saints meekly joined that queue on Saturday.
Three big players, Jose Fonte, Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez were left on the bench, the latter pair coming on for the final half-hour. Just at the one point where his team looked capable of snatching an equaliser, Mauricio Pochettino took off his best player, Adam Lallana, to give teenager Sam McQueen his first-team debut.
They were not the actions of a manager desperate to stay in the competition. Why he was so against winning is as mystifying as it is depressing. The apathy crept through to Pochettino’s players and the sparse crowd to produce a flat first half. With neither Sunderland full-back providing much threat, the home side’s attacks were funnelled down the middle. The approach play was good, the final ball rarely was.
The game did not deserve the goal Gardner gave it five minutes after half-time.
The midfielder shifted the ball between his feet to beat Wanyama and unleashed a thunderbolt shot which dipped just in time to clip the underside of the bar and go in. Ten minutes later Gardner made a good run to get on the end of Larsson’s magnificent clipped pass. With a better touch, he would probably have scored again.
Gardner’s goal and the introduction of Schneiderlin and Rodriguez threatened to create a proper cup tie, but not until the final ten minutes did it really grip the imagination.
Clyne started making inroads behind Alonso – a left-back who looks better going forward than back – but no one was able to take advantage. Lallana found space at the near post but incredibly poked wide. Lambert ensured it was quickly forgotten.
At the other end Borini twice dragged shots off target. Davis even came up for a corner.
For the spectacle, as for Southampton, it was all too little, far too late.