In the run up to our Checkatrade Trophy Final, we have invited our crack (not crap) team of ALS writers to recount their favourite Magic Wembley Moments, or should that be tragic? Here's Michael Lough's' take on our 2014 League Cup Final v Man City...
The date is August 27th 2013, I am drinking in the fading sunshine of late summer whilst sipping on an ice cold can of Coca-Cola. Miles of scenery befitting the front of a postcard stretches out before me and the sky is tinged with pink as the sun begins to set. In the distance, I can see a few hardy souls paddling in the North Sea, while the beach is awash with dog walkers taking their loyal companions for a late-night stroll. I am currently in the middle of the last holiday we will have together as a family before I begin University in a few short weeks and in that moment, I ought to feel at peace with the world. But in typical fashion, my moment of lost content has been ruined by Sunderland as they trail 2-0 to a football club that at the time were younger than a pupil entering their final year at Primary School.
Not only was I annoyed at my useless football team, but I was having one of those moments of self-analysis that all football fans experience at some point in their lives. I considered how I would be feeling in that moment if I wasn’t interested in football. If I wasn’t stupid enough to wander to the top of a steep hill to receive a radio reception strong enough to listen to the dulcet tones of Barnes and Bennet describe another pathetic surrender in the early rounds of a cup competition. I sat there silently cursing my mam, my dad, my granddad and anyone else who had played a part in me falling in love with this cursed club… then, out of nowhere we pulled a goal back through new signing, Jozy Altidore.
At the time it seemed as though the goal would have little consequence for our 2013-14 campaign. Sure, the American’s strike provided the catalyst for an improbable comeback on the night, and I must have looked quite the weirdo, jumping up and down on a park bench in relief when Connor Whickham’s deflected strike put the lads 3-2 up on the cusp of the 90 minute mark; but if we’d lost would it really have mattered? Other than alarm bells over Paolo Di Canio’s management by hand grenade style being raised a bit louder and a little earlier, the result would have been quite swiftly condemned to an insignificant footnote in the club’s history. Afterall, would the defeat have been any more depressing than our pathetic 1-0 defeat to Middlesbrough the year before. Would falling at the first hurdle of a cup competition hit us harder than losing 2-1 at home to Notts County, despite fielding Darren Bent, Danny Welbeck and Asamoah Gyan from the start? Probably not. But as proponents of the butterfly effect claim, ‘the single flutter of a butterfly’s wing is sufficient to cause an earthquake on the other side of the world.’ In our case, a seemingly inconsequential win over a side two divisions below us in the football pyramid, caused a ripple so potent that it carried us all the way to an invasion of the City of London and a place it in the Capital One cup final little over six months later.
It is perhaps a sad consequence of the era we live in that the run to our first cup final in a generation almost went under the radar before exploding into life during that night at Old Trafford. Set against the backdrop of yet another relegation battle, Capital One Cup success felt like a pipe dream and even the quarter final at home to Chelsea attracted a crowd of below 20,000. This attendance was 10,000 lowers than the recorded crowd for our third-round replay against Notts County in 1973. This isn’t a dig at anyone who couldn’t be there that night and the extra expense just before Christmas is not something that most families welcome, but it further proves that the 2014 cup run was the first in our history where cup fever didn’t engulf Wearside until the final itself was almost upon us.
When it did strike, however it produced an epidemic so strong that every Sunderland fan you spoke to seemed to have an incurable dose of it, as 9,000 massive lads’ fans made the journey to ‘The Theatre of Dreams.’
Under the stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson, many would have expected Manchester United to get an early goal and condemn us to a comprehensive defeat. But fortunately for us, David Moyes was at the wheel and the prospect of defending a 2-1 advantage from the first leg was nowhere near as daunting. Former Sunderland centre half, Jonny Evans did indeed score relatively early for United, but the hosts looked toothless as the game headed to its conclusion and the tie went into extra time.
For the next 30 minutes we tried to suck the ball in, every single Sunderland chant known to man was recited and the roar every time we attacked made the foundations shake. But on the pitch as much as we huffed and puffed it looked as though United were going to cling on to set up a final with their rivals, Manchester City.
Then, the unthinkable happened, Phil Bardsley’s desperate effort from just outside the area evaded De Gea’s grasp and nestled in the bottom corner.
An explosion went off in the away end; bodies flew off in every direction. Grown men welled up with raw emotion, the players jubilantly celebrated.
Of course, in typical Sunderland style, we almost threw it all away but in that moment the whole of Wearside finally believed that we could upset the apple cart and win our first trophy since Bobby Kerr lifted the FA Cup in 1973.
The subsequent penalty shoot-out was as torturous as it was glorious but eventually the tie was settled as Rafael struck a penalty to Vito Mannone’s right, but the Italian gratefully clung on to the ball like a chocoholic clutching an extra-large Easter egg and the lads were off to Wembley.
From then on, the ripple effect of momentum was sufficient to generate a tsunami of exuberance and anticipation as the final approached.
In the build-up, the city was even more awash red and white than usual, the Wearmouth Bridge had ‘Good luck SAFC’ banners at either side of it and we all dared to dream.
Then came that day itself as we arrived at Kings Cross much of the talk was about where everyone was congregating that night for the pre-cup final festivities after a Russian society had rudely claimed our traditional Trafalgar square spot. Fortunately, It had been decided that Covent Garden was the meeting place for the travelling red and white army, so that evening, myself along with thousands of fellow Sunderland fans descended on the capital’s cultural hotspot armed with cans and high spirits.
As we neared the main event Sunderland supporters were appearing from everywhere. Regular commuters seemed bemused as hordes of our fans belted out a series of chants and danced about between tube stations. At times it was easy to forget that we were hundreds of miles away from home, and not in Sunderland hours after a derby day victory. One busker in particular made a fortune by playing Bob Marley’s classic, ‘don’t worry about a thing’ as Sunderland supporters streamed past his spot outside a tube station.
Covent Garden itself it was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed. By the time we had got there, every off-license within two miles had been stripped bare of every alcoholic beverage that they had in stock and the party was in full swing.
Strangers embraced, drank and jumped all over singing Sunderland songs. Fans stood on top of phone boxes leading chants, all generations mingled and had a great time and there wasn’t a hint of bother all night. The scenes of celebration were such that you would be forgiven for thinking we had already won the cup final. A lovely old time was had by all and we successfully pissed off a Tory MP by turning Covent Garden into a ‘disgusting cesspit’ and ruining his fish supper. A pretty successful evening if you ask me.
Eventually the crowd dispersed, and everyone got some kip before descending on Wembley way the following morning.
As we got off the tube at Wembley station, raw emotion completely took over, walking to the ground it felt like a home game as once again red and white shirts were everywhere and as one middle aged chap holding a can of Carling so eloquently observed, ‘fuck me, do City knar the game is today like?’ It was at that point that the magnitude of the occasion hit me.
All weekend I had thought to myself that the result was irrelevant providing we gave a good account of ourselves. But suddenly I felt sick with nerves. It dawned on me that we were just 90 minutes away from glory. Contrary to the sentiments I expressed at the beginning of this piece I felt eternally grateful that Sunderland AFC and the City Of Sunderland itself made up so much of my identity and I internally thanked my family for raising me this way. I thought about what it must be like supporting a team that you have no tangible connection with and in that moment, I actually pitied them.
It may have taken me until adulthood to witness my team play at Wembley, but the day was all the more special for it. On one video of the weekend you see an elderly gentleman see Wembley way come into focus and well up with tears as he cries, ‘ha’way the lads’ at the top of his voice. Traditionally, football in the north east was an expression of working class freedom and provided workers with a symbol of hope during great economic depression. Much had changed since the origins of the game, but our Wembley 2014 experience was proof that having a shared love and a common passion in a society where we are sharing less shared experiences can be an empowering thing indeed.
The game itself couldn’t have started much better when Fabio Borini got the better of Vincent Kompany and fired the ball into the far bottom corner. As the ball struck the back of the net there was sheer bedlam in the Sunderland end and I completely lost it. All the emotion mentioned in the last paragraph welled up inside of me and it was hard not to cry with happiness. I remember sitting at half staring at the scoreboard in a daze, scarcely comprehending the information in front of my eyes.
Of course, other things then happened including YaYa Toure producing his best Ronaldinho impression by hitting the best cross cum shot you will ever see in the flesh to level things up. From then on, City took control of the game and ultimately ran out winners. However, there was one more moment of sheer pride to come. When victors made it 3-1, the Sunderland fans roared defiantly and broke into a chant of Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, and it was sung right until the full-time whistle.
Others who have seen Sunderland lose at Wembley in the past, may not have experienced the weekend in the same manner as me. But it was an occasion that the whole of Wearside and beyond embraced with open arms and for once created national headlines for the right reasons.
In the coming days, we are set to return to Wembley to try and claim a significantly less prestigious prize, but let’s not forget the butterfly effect. Should we win the Checkatrade Trophy, not only will it give us a weekend to remember but the feeling and the winning mentality it has the potential to generate may cause a ripple that will eventually see us dining at football’s top table once again.