MANAGER Martin O’Neill underestimates the importance of the FA Cup to Wearside at his peril. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas reports.
THERE are 5,000 reasons why Martin O’Neill must take the FA Cup seriously in this, of all years.
Forty years on from the last time Sunderland lifted the famous trophy, the Black Cats pitch up in Bolton this afternoon for a distinctly awkward first staging point of this year’s FA Cup campaign.
That the team will be backed by a veritable army of travelling Sunderland supporters says it all. This competition means something to O’Neill’s people – and given the faith they have invested in him of late, he cannot afford to ignore that.
To be fair, there were a couple of subtle clues from the boss that he shares that belief. First of all, he actually proffered some injury news to the waiting Press pack – something of a first.
Without prompting, he revealed that Stephane Sessegnon and Danny Rose might not be fit to play. Given that previous weeks have seen him respond to injury queries with a straight bat which Geoffrey Boycott would be proud of it, we are safe to assume it was a deliberate ploy to head off suggestions of a weakened team if both are absent.
Secondly, he sought out Sunderland’s Press officer after the conclusion of the media conference to verify that there really would be 5,000 in the away end at the Reebok. His eyes widened when it was confirmed that the allocation had been sold out.
“Of course it’s a priority to the fans,” O’Neill said. “You don’t want to be letting people down, for sure.
“We’ll give it everything we’ve got, whatever side we’ve got. Even if I was in a position to rotate more, I’d still want to give it the respect it was due.
“Ellis (Short) hasn’t really spoken to me about it but I want to take it seriously from my own experience of last season and what it can do.”
As far as anniversaries go, 40 is not all that special but it’s a nice round number and for those who believe in omens, it might be a portent for a decent Cup run.
On the negative side, it also drives home just how lean times have been ever since. That 1973 triumph remains indelibly marked in the club’s history books – and always will, thanks to the bronze bust of Bob Stokoe’s wild celebration at full-time – but will the Black Cats ever repeat the feat?
They have come close on occasion, and an appearance in the final in 1992, as well as the heartbreak of semi-final defeat to Millwall, are confirmation that they can make an impact, even in the modern era.
Last year’s last eight appearance was further proof, although actually winning it would be the stuff of legend.
O’Neill says: “It would be mean everything. More so than ever before. The very fact that it is 40 years tells you everything.
“They’ve been obviously crying out for it. It’s hard to believe that a club like Sunderland – or Newcastle, for that matter – can go that length of time without winning a trophy.