Countdown to Wembley: not daring to dream

Jake: 'oh Vito Mannone'
Jake: ‘oh Vito Mannone’

Still they keep coming. Eric Sweeney has not written for Salut! Sunderland for some time but, like so many others, has been spurred into action by the heartwarming Wembley run (s), Gus Poyet’s battling leadership and that familiar enemy – hope …

Too young to remember the final in ’85, not born to enjoy the success of ’73, Sunday March 2 will be my first experience of watching Sunderland in a Wembley Final.

It’s a strange thing to write; hopefully the next final comes around much quicker than 22 long years. To date, my most memorable season was when Keane took over with the club rooted at the bottom of the championship under the stewardship of Niall Quinn.

We seemed to win every game that year and ended up topping the division, optimism was high and it seemed our destiny to become a top six Premier League club within a couple of years. I still recall the interview when Kieran Richardson was asked how will we do in the PL that year, his answer of “Champions League” drew laughter from the crowd but it’s the way we all felt, as if something special could happen the club, it was our time, our moment to shine.

Jake: 'trust in Gus'
Jake: ‘trust in Gus’

Countdown to Wembley: click along this line to see all articles in this series

It didn’t happen, and the last few seasons have been quite depressing. Roy left and in came Sbragia, nice man but not a lead man. How we stayed up that year was a miracle and thanks must go to Alan Shearer for his short but sweet job he did at Newcastle.

I could see potential in the Bruce appointment, he had done a good job signing unknown players for Wigan but he didn’t repeat this at Sunderland. In came Da Silva, Riveros, Cana and of course the great Titus Bramble but it didn’t work. I went to a pre-season friendly to see Paraguay because I could catch a glimpse of Da Silva, my mate who joined me was laughing at my expression seeing him play. Let’s say he didn’t impress.

The problem as I see it is the unsettled nature of our squad. Too many players come into and then leave the club meaning we are always rebuilding each year. That was in many ways Steve Bruce’s strength; he was supposed to get us good players and reasonable prices! We knew we weren’t going to be passing it around like Barcelona with him but we thought we’d get some decent transfers.

An over reliance on loan players has also been a problem, we’ve seen some fantastic players play for the club on loan: Danny Welbeck, Johnny Evans, John Mensah and Danny Rose. They all came, played well but left the following season and we were still looking for permanent answers.

I have spent far too much time lately looking up players on YouTube and then thinking we have signed the next Pele. When Lorik Cana signed I got so excited I ordered a jersey that day with his name on the back. I now refuse to look at YouTube, a place where every player perhaps with the exception of Diakité and Paul McShane looks world-class.

Martin O’Neill came in and that was it, we were now in good hands, top six here we come! Sunderland fan, track record, nice bloke, he was the real deal but again… it didn’t work with us. His two big signings being AJ and Fletcher and for a while at least, it didn’t look at all like good business. I bet Ellis Short was doing the maths and thinking, if he’s got me two average players for £20m how much will he spend to get me a full squad? Probably more than he bought the club for, definitely more than he was willing to spend.

At the end he seemed devoid of confidence in his own ability to change the fortunes of the team. He was asked that question once he took the Ireland job but denied it. Whatever the truth, it didn’t work again.

You begin to become deluded; when Di Canio took the job I defended the choice. I knew it was a crazy appointment but it could have worked, we took a chance on an unproven manager and got badly burnt in the process. We’ve endured a hard time but finally we are seeing light at the end of this torrid journey.

Campo Retro's prize in Guess the Score**
Campo Retro’s prize in Guess the Score**

** Guess the Score and maybe win this top:

I’ve two football teams I follow, the other being Celtic. I often compare the squads thinking who is in a better position and currently there is no doubt in my mind it is Celtic. Many years ago, when more money was in Scottish football they were trying to compete with the English clubs in signing players. They had an ageing squad full of players who had already reached their potential or were proven not to be fit for the PL. That philosophy changed to signing young, hungry, aspiring players using a well-oiled scouting network.

Now, you see players like Wanyama and Hooper coming to the club for small amounts and leaving for significant figures. This is what I believe Short is trying to replicate at Sunderland. We need some luck in the process but it’ll put the club in a much better situation in the future.

I’m enjoying Gus Poyet, I enjoy the football, the team spirit he generates, the tactics, the passing game and more. To take our squad in the position we were in and take the club to a cup final is simply put an unbelievable achievement. Too many managers in the past have done the fashionable thing which is to disrespect the cup competitions, with the “Premier League survival is our main priority” line.

I’ve never fully understood why it has to be a question of either survival or cup success. We are not in Europe, we have time to play these games and if we do hit fixture congestion then rotate the squad like we had to against Southampton in the FA Cup. The competition has proved to be a great distraction from the league – without it this year, we’d have only tension being in the position we are in.

I live abroad and was thinking of attending the final but decided against it. I read an article on another fan site which was clearly written in a mood of frustration. He complained of how difficult it was to get tickets for all the loyal fans, so many of his friends had missed out on tickets despite being to many games every season for many years. I couldn’t go and get the ticket knowing I could potentially take it away from someone more deserving. I will watch it, as normal on TV shouting at the screen, biting my nails and hoping for something special.

We can win it. It’s been our year in the cups; we’ve had great draws along the way. Once you’re in a final you can’t write the script. Having Wes Brown back is a major factor, on his day he could potentially keep any side out.

Jake's accolade after the Man City game
Jake: ‘same again Wes?’

But it’s a big ask. We have the Don Vito in our side who has been magnificent; we have Alonso, Cattermole, Ki, AJ and Borini. We have work rate, belief and most importantly support. I’m sure Wembley will be full of red and white shirts all singing loudly, driving their team on. I’m sure everyone will enjoy the day even if the result doesn’t go our way.

To beat City a year after they were surprised in a cup final is an incredible task for a side in the relegation zone. I want to see a committed performance, full of endeavor and if we do end up losing to a side which has at its disposal millions of pounds worth of players we can be proud of what the team has achieved.

To win it is a dream I can’t allow myself. I need to keep myself in check to protect myself against that dreadful feeling of despair in defeat.

The dream is alive and the best case scenario is impossible to ignore. Silverware and Europe, but it won’t feel the same if we can’t survive in the PL. So many players would leave and who’s to say we could keep hold of the manager who is only on a two-year deal. This season could be the new season I will always fondly remember, or it could be the one I try to forget. Let’s hope for the former.

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