After the Dream, The Reality Of Sunderland's Fixture Congestion

Mark Runnacles

We've heard a lot about fixture pile-ups and the like for a while now, but now the cup adventures are over, just what does it mean for Sunderland's schedule?

As Gus Poyet's players trudged dejectedly off the pitch at the KC Stadium, I think it's fair to say that it was the manner of Sunderland's FA Cup exit that rankling with most fans rather than the exit itself.

With good reason too, I might add. Fans are perfectly within their rights to question whether the team selection by the manager or the demonstrated attitude of the players on the day truly reflected the enthusiasm with which supporters were treating the chance to return to Wembley.

Personally, I'm not really conformable with conclusions based upon mere possibilities. I don't feel especially qualified to judge.

Only really Poyet can tell you if he picked a team to lose. He spends far more time with the squad and has much more information about their fitness levels and mentalities than I ever will. Only the players involved can tell you if they really wanted to win. Though, I would note that after their exploits in the Capital One Cup this season, an accusation that anyone at the club doesn't take the cup competitions seriously may be a disingenuous one.

But whilst my own disappointment was palpable, I could also feel the bigger picture looming like a menacing spectre overhead.

This isn't another tiresome debate over where a club's priorities should lie and whether or not Premier League survival is more meaningful than another tilt at silverware would be. We have all had our say on that one for months now and there is still no definitive answer. It's also, ultimately, a hypothetical scenario within a theoretical possibility. Scrape away the romanticism and expose it to the light of day, and even the best dream you ever dared have can lose a little magic.

The reality is not an especially nice one, either. I personally have always believed we will stay up this season, and I still do, but the schedule is now at breaking point. Lament it or not, the extra game or two from an extended FA Cup run may well have broken it.

This is the schedule as it stands, starting with the visit of Crystal Palace this weekend:

Due to the inability to schedule Premier League games on dates designated for Champions League competition, eight weeks to squeeze in two extra games suddenly becomes two free midweeks. Even as it is right now having exited the FA Cup, we are looking at two games in the final week of the season.

Had progression into the semi finals been secured, the game at home to Everton would also have had to have been rescheduled and the only option would have been to add it to the final week as well, making it four games in the final - and probably crucial - nine days of the season.

Now I should stress that I am not sitting here rejoicing about what happened in the FA Cup last week. It cut fairly deep. But when you carefully examine the connotations of what Sunderland are facing with regard the fixture pile-up, it does, for me, soften the blow a bit.

That comes from someone who is firmly in the 'glory over grind' camp too. If someone had given me a choice, even at the start of the season, between a historic cup win or Premier League survival but not both, I'd have taken the former without hesitation.

Whilst the self-destruction against Hull was a missed opportunity, and a very good one at that, we should always remember that an opportunity is all it was. There was never any guarantees on offer. There are always more opportunities to be had, as well. There will be two chances to get back to Wembley next season again, and every season after that. Football is kind like that.

And if we manage to stay up - an achievement which would be absolutely remarkable and almost unprecedented given the start we had - then we don't have to look upon it as surrendering our chance to win something. It can instead be seen as the first and vital step towards building something that will enable us to compete for silverware on a more regular basis and from a position of much greater strength.

It's not glamorous and it won't yield instant dividends in terms of stories we can tell our kids, but reality seldom is. The time for daring to dream may be over now, but it doesn't mean it has gone forever. Now it's all about daring to do. Manage it, and the reality may not be as perfect if it was with a freshly polished FA Cup in the trophy cabinet, but it will still be better than probably any of us dared to dream back in October.

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