The first myth that needs to be nailed is that Birmingham City’s relegation in 2011 was a direct result of what happened at Wembley on a Sunday afternoon in late February.
Alex McLeish’s flawed League Cup winners have become a cherished test case for the increasing band of realists who seek to relegate the importance of the knockout competitions. Anti-romantics like Sam Allardyce spied the correlation between cup exertions and spiralling league form and used it to burnish their argument for sending out weakened teams.
Only the argument is overly simplistic and fundamentally flawed. The seeds for Birmingham’s failures were sown in a January transfer window where they failed to recruit with diligence and coherence, and the relegation would have happened even without the extra (three) games that their extended cup run brought. Don’t believe it? The thoughts of McLeish, who argued stridently that the cup was no sort of distraction, are illuminating.
He said: “If we had concentrated on the intended targets instead of a scattergun approach of last-gasp loan deals, I’ve no doubt we would have been strong enough to not only win the cup but retain Premier League status.
“If we had kicked on after that ninth place, won the Carling Cup and then stayed up, we would have become stronger and technically better. My managerial successes have always been because the preparation has been right in advance. That’s what we did at Rangers where we won titles and it was the same with Blues for the ninth place finish. That was the time to kick on and establish Birmingham – it was a massive opportunity.” As Sunderland spy an unexpected opportunity to create history in the League Cup, it is a very important point to remember.
The cheers had barely subsided at the Stadium of Light before the doubts had begun to creep in. Birmingham and Wigan both won trophies while suffering relegation while Sunderland’s own experience in the 1985 Milk Cup final was reaching the final before being dumped into the Second Division.
No team that will enter a New Year anchored to the bottom of the Premier League table can ignore the spectre of the drop, but it is singularly unreasonable to suppose that Sunderland can’t mount a recovery effort that is allied to serious efforts to lift their first piece of silverware for more than 40 years.
The lesson from Birmingham is not to save key players for the league but to plan properly and astutely in January. What happened on Tuesday merely added urgency to a window that will be absolutely critical for Sunderland’s transfer trinity of Gus Poyet, Roberto de Fanti and Ellis Short.
They have to heed what happened at St Andrew’s and recruit players ready to hit the ground running rather than reprise the unsuccessful hunches of the summer.
For all that he has been criticised for a close season recruitment drive that lost its way badly, six of de Fanti’s summer signings played on Tuesday and all performed a central role in Sunderland’s unlikely victory.
Ki’s growing reputation at the Stadium of Light was confirmed by a game-changing cameo while Emanuele Giaccherini was Sunderland’s outstanding attacking performer on the night, a dervish of energy and invention who caused Chelsea no end of problems in extra-time. Fabio Borini, once again, made a telling contribution.
All six are bonded by either holding international caps or prior experience of English football. Those who have not yet made the grade – and the sad sight of Cabral warming up on the touchline again was noticeable – have lacked the ability to make an immediate impact in the Premier League.
They may yet do that but Sunderland cannot afford to invest in hope this January. Given that established players must be allowed to leave to make space for any newcomers, they have to bring in bona fide quality in the shape of their excellent creative dynamo Ki.
The squad will certainly be tested over the next month or so as they face a marathon slog of at least 10 games in 38 days between now and the end of January. Poyet will have to be smart to cope with the congestion that has been created by Sunderland’s unlikely progress and it is worth noting that the first semi-final could be played just three days before an important trip to Fulham on January 11.
The second leg, pencilled in for January 22, will precede a match at Stoke on January 28 but if Sunderland progress in the FA Cup they could play three games in six days. Then on February 1 there is the small matter of the Tyne-Wear derby for a team that could be toasting their place in a Wembley final. Clearly, the current squad has the numbers to cope with such a bruising schedule but the real question is whether it has the quality.
The way that the likes of Mo Diakite and Cabral have been used over recent months suggests that successive managers have their doubts about that. Perhaps one solution would be to bring back Alfred N’Diaye, whatever the financial penalties that may be incurred.
The good news for Sunderland is that it is becoming very apparent that they have a manager with the capability to deliver safety through a new method of playing. Their patient, possession-based approach has been noticeable of late and a quote from Seb Larsson is instructive.
“Chelsea saw a lot of the ball and you get a bit frustrated when you don’t get the ball. But that’s the way we play now, with that little bit more patience and not getting frustrated and trying to run everywhere and chase after everything. I think that is what saved us during that spell in the second half.
“We have evolved and changed I think. We’re working really hard but in a different way and it’s about winning games to back that up. We won a big game on Tuesday and now it is about winning another big game against Norwich on Saturday.”
The ability to string quick-fire wins together will be something Sunderland require from now on.