GUESS THE SCORE: The Checktrade rules are simple – no extra time but penalties if scores are level at 90 minutes. For the prize mug – whoever you support – you must correctly predict the score at full time and, if the teams are drawing, the winner on penalties (don’t worry about the shoot-out score). And you must have a UK delivery address …
Sunderland have had some great moments against Man City in cup games. The 3-1 win in a fifth round FA Cup replay, on our way to Wembley glory in 1973, was one. Wembley again, for the League Cup final in 2014, was another.
We invaded London, steamed ahead thanks to Fabio Borini’s tremendous goal and should have seen him double the lead before half time. Steven Fletcher missed a good chance at 1-2 but by the end, three classy City goals had seen us off.
In that Cinderella of trophies, the Checkatrade, we face City boys not men in the quarterfinals but – as that implies – find ourselves two steps away from a Wembley return. Read again how Pete Sixsmith saw the 2014 League Cup final …
Pete didn’t quite qualify for Mr Robert Halfon MP’s tribute to “scumbag football hooligans”, missing out on the Covent Garden riot (implies Mr H) or good-natured gathering (said the cops) and travelling down on the Durham SAFCSA branch charabanc. This is his wonderful account of a great occasion we wouldn’t let defeat spoil (and the MP did have the grace to apologise, and to Salut! Sunderland no less: https://safc.blog/2014/03/robert-halfon-speaks-i-will-regret-that-tweet-for-the-rest-of-my-life/)…
So we didn’t quite veni, vidi, vici. We came, we saw but didn’t quite conquer the giants of East Manchester. But didn’t we give them one hell of a shock?
Obviously I don’t know what went on in City’s dressing room at half term. Pellegrini strikes me as a calm manager, not one for picking fights with linesmen, older managers or opposition players, but I bet he was worried.
I imagine he said something along the lines of “we need a quick reply. If they hold that lead for another 20 minutes, they are going to beat us. And then, I will turn Alan Pardew on you.”
For the best part of the first half, we did what we all too rarely do against the likes of Villa and Hull – we took the game to them. Just like we did at Newcastle, just like we did at Fulham, we created the tempo and it almost blew away a side who, man for man, are far, far superior to us.
We tackled, passed, blocked and read the game far better than they did. At half time, who would you want in your team – Lee Cattermole or Yaya Toure? No brainer. Cattermole was perfect, his best performance in a Sunderland shirt while Toure was well below the high standards he has set. He ended up on his backside a number of times as Cattermole, Colback, Larsson and Ki tore into him.
Up front, Aguero looked like a man coming back from injury, Dzeko like a man off back to the Bundesliga, while Borini looked like a hero. He took the goal brilliantly and it was easy to see why Liverpool will not sell him. Should Suarez ever leave or be eaten by an opponent, Borini is the perfect replacement – and a lot less high maintenance as well.
And what a goal it was. It started with a great tackle by Cattermole, was followed up by lovely little pass by Larsson (who fully justified his inclusion) and was rounded off with an absolutely brilliant ball by Johnson.
Borini still had all the hard work to do as he skipped past a labouring Kompany and an almost absent Demichelis. Then, a wonderful finish into the far corner across the keeper and we dared to dream.
The dream was still there at half time. They came at us, but there were no clear chances. Nasri looked for penalties or free kicks and constantly moaned at Martin Atkinson. Silva skipped around and did very little with the ball.
There were a few crosses – Borini headed one over the bar – but little to trouble Mannone. It was a consummate performance and, when Borini skipped away with a couple of minutes left, it looked like we would be sucking the oranges with a two-goal lead.
This was the turning point of the game. He bore down on goal with Kompany haring after him. He took maybe a touch too many allowing the Belgian skipper to stick out a telescopic leg and win the ball.
On such individual contributions do games turn. It was a tackle that reminded me of Dave Watson all those years ago when his long legs took the ball away from Clarke and Jones and broke Leeds hearts. This one broke our hearts.
Like a huge beast being tormented by lesser mortals, City gave themselves a shake and scored two goals that were fit to win any game. Ironically, they came from players who had looked so ineffective in the first half. But Toure and Nasri are top class player; they produce when they have to.
Perhaps our intensity levels had dropped. We had put so much into the game that it may have been impossible to keep it up for 90 minutes. Toure was allowed space and he produced a wonder lob which Mannone might have saved had he been the twice his normal size. Brilliant goal from a fine player.
With hindsight, we needed to settle the game down after that. But we came at them. Cattermole got into their box, the ball went to Alonso but his cross was too near the keeper. We were too far forward and a good kick, good control, a good pass and a good finish put us behind. A fine goal but maybe we could have slowed the game down.
There were chances. Fletcher’s shot was a weak one and he missed his kick at the end, spurning the kind of chance he would have taken two years ago. Injuries and a loss of confidence have reduced his potency.
The third goal was cruel and was typical of a good side beating a game one. It made it look like a comfortable victory for City but it wasn’t. They worked hard for it because we made them.
There were tears from the players at the end but not the fans. We knew that they had given everything and that we had been beaten by a side who would not have found room for any one of ours in their 17-man squad – possibly Borini for the totally ineffective Dzeko – and who have spent hundreds of millions to reach the Round of the Last 16 in the Champions League.
Pride was everywhere on Sunday. Pride in our manager, who has created a decent side out of the shambles he walked into. Pride in the players who showed that they can create a tempo and, if this can be continued, will finish in a relatively comfortable position in the league. Bradford City used their defeat last year to mount a successful promotion campaign.
But most of all pride in our club – because that is who it belongs to. It’s ours. Syd Collings, Tom Cowie, Bob Murray, Niall Quinn and Ellis Short have looked after it and have put money into it, but it is our club. It’s mine, Colin’s, Pete Horan’s, and Steven Wilson’s. It’s Jake’s and John McCormick’s and Joan and Malcolm Dawson’s and Jeremy’s. And when we are no longer here, it will belong to the little boy who sat next to me and who roared in my face after Borini scored.
A long, long day for a man of my years. The coach journey down was great and the pre-match beers with M Salut and the Two Johns (Jake is really called John) was tres enjoyable. The City fans in the pub were good company; they cannot believe their luck and are making the most of it. I hope that continued success does not turn them into clones of their neighbours in Stretford.
The worst aspect of the day was getting out of Wembley. The stadium is fine, the location isn’t. Two and a quarter hours to get onto the M1 is shocking as the coach followed a serpentine route passing Tesco, Ikea and scores of small offices and workshops and frequently doubling back on itself.
The other results at the weekend were helpful and the events at Hull made us all chuckle. The general consensus was that Meyler missed a great opportunity to splatter him. He should get a great ovation on Sunday.