During a pretty straightforward victory, I think we started to see the Di Canio cobwebs swiftly blown away. A comprehensive 2-0 home win from a far more fluent Kevin Ball side saw us comfortably into the next round. Cheers, Bally!
I love night matches. Even ones against lower league opposition in the early rounds of the League Cup. The attendance might not be great and the atmosphere almost non-existent, but there's something special about the night match ritual. Starting with the swift exit from work before grabbing a quick bit of bait, then heading out for a beer and the essential pre match Bovril. I suppose it comes down to the difference to the regular match day routine. That difference is amplified by the fact we usually go out in the early rounds, so it's a bit of a novelty. That hasn't been the case this year, of course.
Not only have we gone all the way this season, we've been drawn at home in every round too. In round three, we took on Peterborough United on the Tuesday evening after Paolo Di Canio's ejection from the managerial hot seat. At the time, with just one point on the board and only the previous round's cup victory to savour, things felt certain, just not in a good way. We were going down. We were a mess. We were without a manager.
Well, we did have someone in charge, albeit on a temporary basis. Kevin Ball was left to pick up the pieces in the wake of the Di Canio debacle at the Hawthornes. Defeat at the hands of West Brom was bad enough, but it was what happened in the immediate aftermath that left those of us who had stuck around completely dumbfounded. Our ex manager ambled over before gesturing at us in a way that seemed to say, "Keep your chins up". It was an astonishing, theatrical performance, which was met with shock, anger and in some cases people defending him. I've never seen anything quite like it from a manager before, but it summed him and his reign up neatly. It was timely too, since it was coming to an end.
Ironically enough, it took his departure for us to claw our way back to respectability and for chins to be picked up off the floor. Before Poyet's arrival and our ascent from the foot of the table however, was Ball's brief tenure, which began with a routine, professionally executed victory over Peterborough of League 1. In the previous round, Sunderland had made hard work of eliminating MK Dons. The performance against Peterborough was everything the one against MK Dons should have been, but wasn't.
Ball's team selection and set up looked positive and so they proved to be. The team had been strangled by Di Canio's tactics and oppressed by his hard line man management techniques. Now the shackles were off; they were liberated under Ball. That said, there was nothing spectacular about the performance. It wasn't a demolition. The Lads simply cruised to victory.
Watching from the South Stand, a first half goal from Giaccherini set us on our way. In the second half I swapped ends and shifted to the North Stand. This is another aspect of low attendance evening games I like; you can pretty much pick your spot and shift around as you please. I must admit, I'd forgotten that Roberge got the second, which I took in from my new vantage point. His goal, much like the player himself, has sort of faded from memory.
Whilst Roberge has disappeared from first team matters of late, this game saw the return of a player who has become a key figure under Poyet. Lee Cattermole had been ostracised from the squad under the old regime, but Bally opted to start him on the night. The Teessider almost left the club in the summer and was subsequently frozen out. It's amazing how quickly things can turnaround as he now finds himself well and truly back in the fold. This was the first step on a road to Sunderland career recovery, which will likely see him start in a key role in Sunday's final. Remarkable.
His return wasn't greeted by all with open arms, however. Sat in the North Stand, I had the misfortune to position myself close to a couple of "supporters" who seemed hell bent on not only criticising everything that happened on the pitch - fair enough you pay your money, you're welcome to your opinion - but also having a dig at anyone supporting and encouraging the team. Anyone with the gall to praise or applaud Cattermole in particular, was greeted with a glare at best or at times angry taunts of "why are you clapping him!?" By their rule, you're free to hold an opinion, as long as it isn't supportive or positive.
In fact, this second half display of "support" is the thing I remember most about the match. I can only think they were either huge Di Canio fans or just extremely annoyed by the way things were going at the club to the point where supporting no longer seemed to be an option. Why you'd pay good money to sit and have a go at people for getting behind the team is beyond me though. Thankfully, it didn't lead to any physical clashes, but one or two did seem close to confronting them.
Happily - or perhaps not for those individuals - we prevailed. Bally showed himself to be a decent tactician and a man of the modern management school. Basically, he was the complete opposite of his Italian predecessor. You never know, he may even go onto manage the club on more permanent basis one day. He seemed to do enough in his short time in charge to show the potential is there.
More importantly, an enjoyable night was rounded off with a bag of curry and chips, a cuppa when I got in and the satisfaction of us being one step closer to Wembley.
For the first time since the away fans have been moved to the upper north stand, I decided to sit elsewhere in the stadium for this game. Frankly, I couldn't be bothered to listen to their fans sing about there being a fire drill or start with their "shhhhhhh". It's bad enough when sides with decent fan bases do it - it's extremely annoying when sides like Villa ignore their own questionable fan bases and do it - but when sides from the lower leagues come and do it, it's just too much. The irony of MK Dons fans singing anything derogatory to anyone ever, anywhere, at any time, was too much.
Anyway, I digress somewhat. This game stands out as a refreshing change from what I'd witnessed previously in other ways also. I was very worried about it beforehand. A lot of people were dismissing Peterborough as an irrelevant, small club from down near Norwich or somewhere. I always thought that was a bit arrogant and ignorant. We were losing to everybody and they were doing considerably well a couple of divisions below us.
I was actually gutted that I never got the chance to interview Bally beforehand, Di Canio had even started to tire me out with his interview styles - always looking to get a cheap shot in somewhere down the line. It seems like this was just a microcosm of what the players were going through.
Prior to the game, we had a few beers in The Borough. There was around 15-20 of the opposition fans in, around half of them under the age of around 23, I'd say. They sang a few songs as they got merrier but never removed themselves from the corner of the bar. This was probably as atmospheric as the evening was likely to get so I didn't mind it so much. I later came across online boasts that Peterborough fans interpreted this as them having 'taken' Sunderland town centre. Okaaaaaaay.
Back to the game, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The static and regimental movement and shape that Di Canio had installed were evidently absent. Without having to employ any sort of tactical mastermind, Bally simply trusted the players to express themselves. In all honesty, any side playing at a higher level than their opponents should win these games, as long as they apply themselves professionally.
The celebration of Giaccherini's opener told its own story. The players hugged and smiled as if they had scored in the final itself. That was the demons of Di Canio's legacy being laid to rest right there. As small and meaningless as this games seemed at the time, that was a moment I'll never forget. Ever. The relief seemed to transfer into the stands and because of the way the season has developed since, it's now defined as a relevant moment in the history of this football club.
Roberge got the second and my mind instantly turned to where on earth we were gonna get a Premier League point from. Yes, it was a great win in the circumstances, but let's be honest, it was only against an irrelevant, small club from down near Norwich or somewhere.
We went back to The Borough and help rebuild the damage from the terrible aftermath of the Peterborough mob visiting hours earlier*.
*Cleared some empty glasses from the table they sat at.