The mercury had plunged at the Eppleton Colliery Welfare ground and the figure on the stands pulled up his jacket to protect himself from the chill.
On a cold Tuesday in January, Sunderland’s under-21s were taking on Stoke’s young guns. It was freezing enough to make this a night strictly for Black Cats loyals – and Phil Bardsley, of course.
For the right-back was at the match with his son, offering his support to a group of young players that he had trained with – and grown close to – over a summer spent in the wilderness. It might have been cold on that Tuesday evening, but it was positively Mediterranean in comparison to the way Bardsley had been frozen out by Paolo Di Canio.
“He was completely out, he was history in this club, he was gone forever, then with the change of management there was an opportunity to come back, the second chance after what happened and he’s taken it to another level,” Gus Poyet explained of his goalscoring right-back on Thursday afternoon.
“He’s become a very, very important player, so I’m very pleased for him.”
If anything defines the transformation in the mood (if not quite the league position) under Poyet, it is his treatment of Di Canio’s lost boys – who were excellent as Sunderland stormed into the final of the Capital One Cup on Wednesday.
As the players were embraced by Ellis Short in the dressing room after an epic evening in Manchester, the feeling couldn’t have been further from the fractious atmosphere that typified Sunderland’s work over the summer.
What the Italian saw in Bardsley was an opportunity to assert his authority and face down another Alpha male in the Black Cats squad on the way to stamping his mark on Sunderland.
What Poyet saw was an honest player who had worked diligently with the youngsters over the summer and was precisely the sort of character to build a survival bid around.
His social media indiscretion was foolish but the Uruguayan laid down a marker by wiping the slate clean. Poyet, you see, is a solutions guy. Short is used to managers who knock on his door with problems – for Di Canio it was indiscipline, for Martin O’Neill it was a lack of necessary resources to shape the squad in his own image.
What Poyet has brought to the table is solutions. Everyone could see the problems, but the Uruguayan has set about making it work.
Don’t think for a minute that the journey is complete or that Poyet is entirely happy with his lot. A large-scale shake-up is planned for the summer and it is telling that not one of the players who is out of contract at the end of the season has been contacted for a new deal yet (with the exception of Jack Colback). There has been a trend this season: Vito Mannone, Ki Sung-Yueng, Fabio Borini, Bardsley and even Craig Gardner. Every single one has got better under Poyet. It has not been enough to generate sufficient momentum to extricate Sunderland from the drop zone yet but they have a fighting chance – and are the bottom eight’s form team.
What’s more, the squad has been fused together by the new man. “Gus has been brilliant,” Wes Brown explained.
“He is on everyone’s side. He helps everyone. We know what he wants and that’s what we try and do. He changes things at times to see how we react to it, and we reacted brilliantly against Manchester United. Back in September I could not imagine this club would be going to a Wembley final, and that’s the honest truth. We’ve come such a long way since then. We are playing very different. We are a strong bunch of lads and hopefully we can just keep this going now in the league.”
Poyet feels there is no magic wand. “We have worked,” he explained, simply. “Hard work, convincing the players to keep doing it, non-stop. It’s something we believe in, myself and the staff, then you need the players to realise that, because they’re the ones who go out on the pitch.
“You have to make the realise it’s possible, to be convinced and to be able to do it. I think we were getting better. It was difficult because of the position we were in, but this is the proof that we’re a better team right now.”
There is still plenty left to fight for this season. Sunderland remain in the bottom three and have to vault the Kidderminster Harriers hurdle tomorrow.
“I think we cannot complain about the confidence now going into the next few games,” Poyet said. “We just need to make sure we do the same things. We’ve been on a very good run for the last month and a half, we need to make sure that we continue. The players are right, everybody is fit, which is incredible, so now we need to make sure we don’t relax in the FA Cup, but especially in the Premier League.”
Whatever happens this season, Wednesday was a special night to be cherished for the ages. The noise from the 9,000 who travelled from Wearside was ear-splitting, the joy unconfined. March 2 promises to be a special day.
Brown said: “This result is definitely up there with what I achieved at United.
“We’ve come to Manchester United and have got the result we wanted and now we are in a final. When I was at United, if we had done the same thing to get into a final, the feeling would be exactly the same. But for us to do it here is brilliant.”