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Captain's Blog: Cup Fervour Shows O'Neill Has Sunderland Looking At The Stars

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If there is on issue that tends to dominate at Sunderland and divide opinion then it is the one of attendances. For some it is a source of embarrassment, for others a source of pride. For Niall Quinn, it must be said, it seemed a near constant source of frustration.

As a fan who grew up on the terraces of Roker Park in some pretty bleak times in the early and mid 1990s, I suspect that, personally, I will always be one who counts the filled seats rather than the empty ones.

Last week, Ellis Short spoke of his desire to get more fans in the stadium on a more regular basis. It was a familiar sentiment, and one we all surely share no matter which side of divide we fall on regarding the issue.

Despite Niall Quinn's road shows and campaign against those fans who choose to watch their football in the pubs rather than at The Stadium of Light, I have never found myself able to be too critical of those fans branded 'stay-aways'. For all the obvious strides made both on and off the pitch, there was always something missing – genuine belief that the club do any more than simply make up the numbers.

The very nature of the modern game has played a big role in that, of course. The uneven distribution of the game's wealth and subsequent pulling of the drawbridge with the new Financial Fair Play rules, coupled with the expense of following modern football has left many fans disillusioned with the game itself.

There remains, however, a sizeable section of the absent support that can have their imagination reignited, and the scenes at the ticket office this week as fans scramble for FA Cup Quarter Final tickets is testament to the fact the club is just starting to achieve it. That elusive belief is returning.

There can be little doubt that the catalyst in all this is Martin O'Neill. As analysts, we pour over statistics, formations, forecasts, and form with the kind of obsession that life-long passion demands. But it is the intangible element to his reign so far that really defines it. The feel-good factor. The reconnection with the players on the pitch and the club itself. The willingness to dare to dream again.

I can't remember queues snaking round the Stadium of Light car park to snap up tickets for the Quarter Final with Sheffield United back in 2004. The ground was barely three quarters full, in fact, around the same as it was for the home game following Sunderland's demolition of Chelsea last season to take them into the top 6. Evidently, good form and big prizes alone are not enough.

It's about creating a sniff of that seminal 'I was there' moment. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not old enough to have experienced the 1973 cup run. However, in the aftermath of the draw at Goodison Park last weekend and looking forward to the replay, I did find myself telling my 5-week-old son all about Gordon Armstrong's last minute Roker End winner against Chelsea in 1992.

It isn't just about Cup fairy tales either. I suspect it won't be long before I am telling him that I was there to see Kevin Phillips fire his way to a European Golden Boot when wearing the red and white. Or I was there for that incredible play off adventure in 1998. Or I was there to see Carlos Edwards break the Burnley net.

The powers-that-be at Sunderland have done a tremendous job over the last few years to drag the club back into a position of pride and relevance to English football once again. But for all their business strategies, generous investment, and sound planning, there just hasn't been that injection of magic that creates the feeling that anything can happen and you dare not risk missing being a part of.

Roy Keane threatened to do it for a while. Darren Bent had the opportunity to become it, but decided he wanted Aston Villa's money more. O'Neill not only seems to have it but, more importantly, knows the value of it. "I don’t have a problem with expectations," he said upon arriving at the club. "A club of Sunderland’s calibre should have ambition."

Oscar Wilde famously said "we are all in the gutter". Judging by the cup fervour engulfing Wearside, it would appear that Martin O'Neill now has Sunderland joining those looking at the stars.

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