Martin O’Neill’s miracle men had plotted a path towards Wembley and after coping so well with the Toffees’ aerial bombardment in the first installment of their quarter-final with Everton, fancied their chances in the second. But it was not to be a night for the ages, as Mark Douglas recalls
YESTERDAY was the shortest day of the year. On Wearside, they are in complete agreement about when the longest was.
March 27 was the evening when Sunderland’s FA Cup dream was not so much ended as obliterated by an Everton team which unofficially ushered in the end of the Martin O’Neill’s honeymoon period.
Before then, anything seemed possible to Black Cats fans encouraged to dream by the remarkable renaissance O’Neill managed to inspire over a four-month period.
Sunderland had beaten Arsenal in the previous round and seen off Middlesbrough in the fourth round, two notable results in an O’Neill-led revival which had consigned the bad memory of Steve Bruce’s toxic talk of expectation to the past.
Perhaps, considering the resources at his disposal and how much re-building work is still required, a re-allignment of expectation and achievement was to be expected.
However, for it to all conspire to ruin one of the biggest nights of the season seemed somewhat cruel.
It has been back to reality ever since, although there is a tangible sense that, despite the results, the foundations are in place for better days at the Stadium of Light.
This was an important evening in every sense of the word. Sunderland had gone to Goodison Park two weeks before and competed on equal terms with the Toffees, their sizeable following revelling in the fact their renewed team matched both the physicality and the desire of David Moyes’ men.
The goals were from Nikica Jelavic and one put through his own net by David Vaughan, although it owed much to that bane of Black Cats’ lives Tim Cahill. It is difficult to remember Sunderland have much of a say at the other end, although brief hope arrived when Nicklas Bendtner was denied by a brilliant Leighton Baines tackle.
Moyes’ greater resources and Everton’s midfield devilment meant it turned into a deeply frustrating night for the locals.
Not only did Sunderland tumble out of the Cup, they had not given their supporters a moment to cling to - and that, more than anything, was the disappointment.
It also paved the way for the end of another Stadium of Light tradition - that of housing supporters behind one of the goals. A loud and lusty Everton contingent sang their way through the match and gave the visiting team a real advantage, something which will not be replicated now Sunderland house visiting supporters up in the gods.
At time time, Moyes hailed it as Everton’s best performance of the season.
A representative of the home team – Lee Cattermole – was offered to the press and spoke of Sunderland trying to force their way into European contention but it felt like a roller-coaster season was over as a competitive entity.
Button-holed about it yesterday, O’Neill (pictured left) was slightly contradictory about its impact.
At first he told the Journal it had not meant much, although he later rolled back to admit it had cast a shadow.
He said: “We were beaten in the game but to say, now, after this length of time, that has cast a shadow over the football club would be ridiculous.
“Did it affect us at the end of last season?
No, because three days later we played probably our best football of the season against Manchester City and we should have won the game.
“We should have beaten the champions of England on their own pitch. We were the only team to take points off them at the Etihad Stadium that season.
“The way we played that day, we deservedly lead 3-1 with a great chance missed by Bendtner to make it 4-1 with seven minutes to go.
So nobody would have said that was the case.
“It’s only on reflection at the end of the season did I feel the disappointment certainly within the players and maybe the supporters..
“Not that I genuinely believe everybody thought we were going to win the cup. It wasn’t that.
“It was because if we could get through, it was like a trip to Wembley, and in the season which had unfolded since August that would have been a nice boost. I think that was it.
“I don’t think anybody thought that we were going to beat Liverpool. We might have, you never know, but it was only just a general disappointment.”
Seconds later, though, he admitted there might be something in the theory it was a major moment in Sunderland’s season.
He added: “I’ve reflected on it and maybe it did hang over us for a little while longer than I thought.”
O’Neill’s indecision is a decent metaphor for a curious year for Sunderland, when it wasn’t clear at times whether they were coming or going.
The year had hope and excitement (both in O’Neill’s glorious early-season revival and the signing of Adam Johnson and Steven Fletcher) but also disappointment.
It ends with the Black Cats braced for a survival battle and buffeted by accusations they might not have moved as far forward under O’Neill as had first been mooted.
Through all that, though, faith in the manager and his ability to inspire change has endured.
For that, 2012 has been worthwhile – although it would not be asking too much for the new year to offer more.