This afternoon’s game is a free hit. Deep down we all know that our target for this season isn’t to win the Pizza Cup, it’s to make sure we never qualify for it ever again. If we win I don’t imagine Lee Johnson’s statue will be added outside the stadium quite yet. I’m not sure we’ll be quick to add to six times Champions of England and two FA cups the Papa John’s lower league trophy. And if we’re only to win one game this week, I hope it’s at Accrington…
And, while I remember, two other things to remember about today…
First of all, you can only beat the teams put in front of you. The winner this evening will have done that and will deserve their celebrations. But let’s make sure those celebrations aren’t in big groups. Let’s not be shown on the news flouting covid rules. We’ve lasted a year, let’s not spoil it now.
And secondly, when neighbours and work colleagues tell you how Mickey Mouse the trophy is, accept it with good grace, smile and agree that it’s almost as embarrassing as celebrating a Texaco Cup or worse an Intertoto Cup. Now that really would be embarrassing.
Anyway, what I’m saying is, if we lose, it doesn’t matter.
But it’s hard to express quite how much I want to win.
The most obvious reason is momentum. We’ve 14 games left this season and, realistically, if we win ten of them we win the lower league and cup double. Turning up on a Monday after winning on a Sunday afternoon is good for morale, good for the desire to keep it going and, weirdly, is even good for injuries – players seem to get fitter quicker after injury when there’s a winning mentality around the club. Win this afternoon and we keep the run going.
Second, it gives us a chance to get some minutes into the legs of players coming back from injury away from the league campaign. Gooch, McLaughlin, Flanaghan, Leadbitter would all benefit from match time and will be key players in the run in.
But let’s be honest, there’s a bigger reason for wanting to win. To win at Wembley.
My beloved Sunderland AFC have been to Wembley eight times in my lifetime, today will make nine. I understand we won there 20 months before I was born but, no one really talks about that so I can’t be sure.
Once or twice is unlucky, three of four times is starting to feel like there’s a problem… eight is black magic. To end the Wembley hoodoo would be fantastic. To see a Sunderland captain lift a trophy at Wembley would be brilliant and if that happens, I won’t be listing the weaknesses of lower league football, the lack of competitive teams and ludicrous addition of Under 23 teams in the earlier rounds. I’ll be celebrating the end of 48 years of absolute misery when it comes to that stadium.
If it’s Power lifting it against his hometown club, it’ll be an amazing moment for him. If the lifting is shared between Power and Leadbitter, it will be lifted by a player for his hometown club, a player who has gone through misery in his private life since we were last there and has fought back, a player who will go through the pain barrier on the day to be involved and, let’s be honest, sending a Sunderland fan up to lift a trophy with only one operational arm is about as Sunderland as you could get.
Whoever wins they’ll be hoping it pushes them on to a second piece of silverware this season. Whoever loses will want to move on from a day out and focus on making sure they don’t need to come back to Wembley in two month’s time.
And that’s my final reason for wanting to win. When we returned to play Charlton it felt like a hangover. A place those players knew how it felt to lose. If we do have to go up via the play offs, imagine returning to the stadium knowing that the last visit was a win and not eight successive defeats.
If we lose, we’ll get over it. If we win, it will matter so much more than it should.