x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sunderland hope to write new legend with League Cup upset of Manchester City

Manager Gus Poyet says 'feeling of winning is far beyond going down', writes Jonathan Wilson.

Sunderland manager Gus Poyet looks on during training on February 26, 2014, ahead of the Capital One Cup final against Manchester City. Stu Forster / Getty Images
Sunderland manager Gus Poyet looks on during training on February 26, 2014, ahead of the Capital One Cup final against Manchester City. Stu Forster / Getty Images

Gus Poyet was unequivocal. It is not how football works and Sunderland may yet do neither or both, but given the choice between winning the League Cup on Sunday and staying up, he would take the trophy.

In a world in which Premier League survival so often seems the be-all-and-end-all, in which maintaining a steady flow of cash from being part of an enormous television deal seems to have supplanted the importance of trophies for many clubs, it was a refreshing recognition that football is, ultimately, about glory.

The unlikeliness makes it all the more compelling. Poyet inherited a rancorous legacy from Paolo Di Canio and, while the league situation remains perilous, the cups have offered salvation.

Of course Manchester City should win, especially with Sergio Aguero likely to be back, and the fact Sunderland have lost just two of their last eight meetings does not alter that. But the League Cup has offered the ultimate distraction from the grimness of the league: 30,000 Sunderland fans will be at Wembley on Sunday, but 80,000 applied within the first 24 hours of tickets going on sale – more than a third of the city’s population.

“I can feel what it means,” said Poyet, who seems to have changed his mind about the significance of the cup in the past week as excitement has built.

“People keep telling me in the street. I cannot believe it, but it’s true. The feeling of winning is far beyond going down, spending two years in the Championship.

“Why? You need to be here for 20 years and feel it like them, or not reach a final for 15 years, or not win one for more than 40.

“Only the people who have been here in the city supporting the club for so long really know. They have the feeling, not me. Me, I can say it, but I can’t feel it. But I’ve been here for four months and I have a chance now.

“You need to listen to them and that’s why it’s an incredible opportunity. I’m not stupid enough to think it’s not important for me. It is. It’s very important for me.

“But what it can bring with it, the club winning something, is very important in terms of the future, in terms of confidence for the rest of the league, in terms of the fans, the club, the players you’re looking to bring in. What I like is to make people happy, and there is no better way than by winning a final, I can tell you that.”

Poyet is right, of course, even if he is seeing the immediate pragmatic benefits. When Sunderland fans meet in 20 or 30 years, what is it they will talk about?

It will be this cup run rather than regular defeats to Arsenal or the ground-out wins over Stoke City, just as these days they speak of the FA Cup final defeat of 1992 or the Milk Cup final defeat of 1985.

Already the quarter-final comeback against Chelsea and the absurd penalty shoot-out at Old Trafford in the semi-final have become the stuff of local myth.

If Sunderland could cause an upset, if they could win a trophy for the first time since their famous underdog win against then-mighty Leeds United in 1973, what then?

In the short-term it might be regular games against big teams that keeps a club alive; in the long-term it is the memories of the greatest moments.

For four decades Sunderland fans have been brought up on stories of the glory of 1973, when Sunderland became the first second-division side to win the FA Cup by beating holders Leeds United.

They have been told of Ian Porterfield’s goal, of Jim Montgomery’s save, of manager Bob Stokoe running, trilby hat perched on his head, legs clad in tight red tracksuit bottoms, coat flapping behind him.

It’s time, perhaps, for a new legend to be written.

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