Mannone’s the man, says Pete Sixsmith, safely back across the Pennines from a great night out in Manchester. Let him tell the story of a rollercoaster of emotions, hopes that fell, rose, fell again and rose – and even that misses out the odd fall and rise – before victory was ours …
When we romped away with the First Division under Peter Reid, BBC Look North did a film piece about Reid, with his favourite Van Morrison track playing in the background. No prizes for guessing that it was Days Like This – and there will never, ever be another day like yesterday for me as a Sunderland fan.
One of the lines of Van the Man’s lyric goes “When no one steps on my dreams”. Hernandez did when we allowed him to level the scores on aggregate 90 seconds after we had looked like going through.
Darren Fletcher did when he confidently stroked home a penalty after feeble attempts by Gardener and Welbeck. De Gea added to it when he saved from Fletcher and Johnson. That awful, empty feeling that we have had ever since Chelsea at home in 1963, that tells you that we are going to mess up, was there, gnawing away at my innards.
And then, Vito Mannone flung himself to his left and smothered United’s fifth penalty, taken by Rafael and the entire support went absolutely wild. Seats were fallen over. Old friends hugged each other and wept. New friendships were made in that cauldron of noise and exuberance as Sunderland AFC, recently written off as Premier League no-hopers by all and sundry (including me) won the tie in what many will say was a penalty shoot out that would not have looked out of place in a pub charity match between men dressed as women and women dressed as pantomime horses.
Do I care? Not a jot. The bottom line is that we won the tie by 2-1 on penalties and that we, not Manchester United, will be facing Manchester City at Wembley on Sunday March 2nd at 2.00pm. Bloody marvellous.
Mannone is the hero and not just for his penalty saves. He is a real find and if Roberto Di Fanti left us with nothing else, we got a good goalkeeper out of him. Don Vito has grown in confidence since making his debut in November and convinces me of his ability every time I see him play.
He made some good stops in the 120 minutes, but the two penalty saves from Janusaj and Rafael will go down in Sunderland folklore, along with Monty at Wembley and Tommy Sorenson at St James’.
In some ways it was fitting that such a high octane game was finished in such a dramatic fashion, although one would have thought it impossible to match the events of the 119th and 120th minute.
There we were, trailing to a Johnny Evans goal and on the way out on the away goals rule, when we made one last prodigious effort. The admirable and totally committed Phil Bardsley received the ball from the equally admirable and committed Ki Sung-Yueng and fired in a shot, more in hope than expectation (how many times have those words been used when describing Sunderland?). De Gea made an awful mess of it and it trickled through his legs and over the line.
The support went wild for the first time, with hugs and jumping and all that kind of thing, but we noticed that there were two minutes left and we have a penchant for ruining the big occasions.
And ruin it we did, as Januzaj turned the ball into the hitherto hopeless Hernandez, who poked it over the line to snatch an aggregate victory away from us.
“Oh blast” went the away support as the dreams of a Cup Final, stoked less than a minute earlier, were almost extinguished and bitter memories of Charlton and Crystal Palace came flooding back. But this time, no Perez or Whitley and the rest, as they say, is history.
We had played well, particularly for the second half and all of extra time. United shaded the first half and we gave them a goal as O’Shea watched Evans get away from him while Borini stood and watched as the rest of the defence pulled out, leaving the doughty young Italian playing on our former centre half.
After that, we seized the game and did something I have rarely seen on our (usually) fruitless trips to Old Trafford – we took the game to them.
The whole team rose to the occasion and made sure that whatever happened, the 9,000 travelling support would be proud of them. That the home team hung on was more due to our lack of a killer ball than their prowess at hanging on to a single goal lead.
Jack Colback had a tremendous game in midfield, defending when he had to and going forward whenever he could. He tackled well, always looked to use the ball and, if he does decide to move on, should have no problem finding another Premier League club.
Ki Sung Yueng rivalled Colback in the midfield stakes, with an imperious performance after the half time interval. For 75 minutes he ran the game, moving along the United line and desperately trying to fashion out a winner – which his penalty eventually became.
Up front, Fabio Borini ran himself and a couple of United defenders into the ground. He almost scored in the first half with a wonderful shot that went over De Gea’s bar and he was prepared to run at the United defence whenever he could.
That takes nothing away from Bardsley, Brown, O’Hare, Alonso, Cattermole, Johnson and Fletcher each one of who played exactly as a fan would have done in giving his all for Sunderland AFC. Heroes everyone and a tribute to the work that Gus Poyet and his coaching staff have put in over the three months since they arrived on Wearside.
As for Poyet, he out thought and out manoeuvred David Moyes as United retreated into their shell and decided to hang on. Poyet changed the team, with excellent and timely substitutions and altered the tactics which neither of his recent predecessors appeared willing or able to do. He has the potential to be a really top class manager, hopefully with us.
And finally, the 12th man, the incredible support that we took to Old Trafford. There were those approaching their dotage who roared the team on. There were those in middle age for whom following Sunderland has turned them into men of constant sorrow, there were the 20 year olds brought up on Reid and Quinn and Micky Gray and Magic Johnson and then there were the youngsters, the fifteen year olds, who have been fed a diet of almost permanent might have been and could have been.
All of these groups came together, supporting their local club, and did what Sunderland fans do best – roaring their team home. No choreographed songs, no waving of flags, just raw passion which comes from the heart. Other clubs may have bigger fan bases and bigger crowds, but no club anywhere else in the world had fans with the genuine passion that Sunderland AFC has.
I was home at 2.15, in bed at 2.30 and up for work at 6.00. A colleague told me that he found watching the penalty shoot out on his Twitter feed was the most difficult thing he could think of. “Try watching it live, mate,” I said. “Ah,” came the reply. “But at least you were there.”
Yes I was. Ha’way The Lads!!!!!!!!!