There's not a lot to say about this one here. Possibly one of the greatest nights in Sunderland's recent history? Words below suggest as much...
Old Trafford was one of those unforgettable nights that I'll never forget. It's not the details I'll remember though, not the goals and the saves, but the intensity and raw emotion. It was match you lived rather than watched.
I mean there were goals. They happened. Bardsley's equaliser hit the net, somehow or other. De Gea contriving to spill it over the line is something I took in after the event, on television reruns. My recollection of the incident itself is one of noise, release, bodies flying, embraces, in some cases tears. We weren't individuals, we were a mass of humanity. A 9,000 strong entity. The goal itself was intangible, only fathomable in the sense of what it meant, what it represented. I couldn't believe it had happened. Bewilderment and bliss mixed together in one transcendent moment.
At that point we were through. This is Sunderland though. That instant, the "winner" as it seemed at the time, took us to unimaginable highs. We were on the moon. Minutes later someone turned the gravity on. There was no time left. None. How the hell did Hernandez score? Even he seemed to want to miss, so close was his effort to going over the bar.
Penalties then. Almost all of them dire. It seemed nobody fancied Wembley after all. With nearly everyone contriving to miss, I didn't even realise we'd won it until a few seconds after Vito had saved the crucial spot kick. It was a strange sensation, the slow dawn that we'd done it. A gradual, blissful release this time, rather than the instant hit provided by Bardsley. This time though, we were safe in the knowledge that Hernandez couldn't spoil it.
Yet somehow, the Bardsley goal, the emotion in that instant surpassed even the winning save. It just encapsulated everything about this cup run in one moment of incredible, emotional intensity. A match and a night to remember with the words, "I was there".
Unlike Craig and the other lucky thousands in attendance at Old Trafford, I watched the second leg of the Semi Final transpire from the relative comfort of my friend's sofa. Although if truth be told I spent the vast majority of my time either perched on the edge of my seat, quite literally, or pacing around his living room.
As I made my way to my friend's house, beers in hand, I had no idea how momentous a night it would pan out to be. Whilst I certainly gave Sunderland a fighting chance of making it through the tie against an out of sorts Manchester United, things are never that simple when it comes to this football club.
The game was tense, almost unbearable at times, yet Sunderland scurried across the Old Trafford field with real purpose and fought for every inch.
The first half seemed to be going according to plan and indeed Sunderland looked the most likely to grab a goal with a stunning Fabio Borini drive make its way agonisingly over David De Gea's crossbar.
More beers were in order, thankfully the fridge was in close proximity, something which would become even more of a godsend as the evening played out.
Then came the first blow from Manchester United just before the break as Jonny Evans broke Sunderland hearts as he ghosted in at the back post to nod home from point blank range. Beer, yes, more beer please.
Despite suffering that setback, it in fact changed very little, at least among my friends watching from the sofa as we had already discussed how it was very likely we need to score, playing for 0-0 at Old Trafford is never a good idea, not even these days, just about...
The second half was a blur, an edgy and anxious blur and before I knew it the game had gone to extra time. More beer.
Throughout the night my friend had been fighting a losing battle to keep his daughter in bed with the young lass adamant that Sunderland's game was a lot more exciting than bed time.
I can still remember the confused look on her face when Phil Bardsley's drive was fumbled by David De Gea and eventually, agonisingly, crept over the line and this group of men in their late twenties went absolutely ballistic in her living room. Hugs, kisses, beer, we shared the lot in a frenzied celebration which had not even come close to calming down before Hernandez forced the game to penalties with the final kick of the game.
From elation to devastation in under a minute.
It took more beer and a brief respite to compose ourselves and ultimately come to the conclusion that that was indeed that. There is no way Sunderland will win a penalty shootout at Old Trafford. Buggar. Oh well, it had been a canny run etc. etc.
Then came the worst penalty shootout in footballing history but as Vito Mannone saved Rafael's penalty, the emotions all came flooding back and celebrations ensued which matched if not bettered those that greeted Bardsley's goal.
While it may sound melodramatic and a tad histrionic, these genuinely are the moments that make this all worthwhile and my mate's daughter sneaking into the celebrations, ignoring the restrictions of her bed time only added to the special moment.
Cue more beer.
This was probably the best night of my Sunderland supporting life. There's moments that I'll remember on my death bed. There's moments I'll tell my kids about over and over again. The bizarre thing is this was JUST a semi final. We haven't won anything. We haven't so much achieved anything. It was just special.
Heading down to Manchester I was full of nerves. Myself and the group of lads I was with, including our own Craig Clark, got a lift down then went for a few pre match nerve settlers. We made the unwise decision to hop a taxi to the ground in rush hour. My bladder didn't appreciate this. On the verge of soiling myself, I shared a piss with a Manchester United fan. A bit of pre match banter about the game, and the fact it might be their turn to suffer for a bit. He was canny enough, and said how he'd seen 'United' relegated. Well that's the status quo up this way, mate!
Into the ground and it was buzzing. We were in the top deck behind the goal. A sea of people, fantastic atmosphere. Just people wanting to roar the lads on to something special. To make a special night. I don't think the 9,000 stopped singing all night to be fair. Even when we went one down. Even when we were the better team in the second half and in extra time. There was a feeling around the ground that they'd given all they could. There was respect for the team, we appreciated it.
One minute to go in injury time, we work the chance. The ball falls to Bardsley. Not a dissimilar move to the one that yielded an equaliser at Cardiff. Phil hits the ball straight down the keepers' throat. But somehow it spins away. The ball travels towards the net at 0.1MPH it seems. I can almost hear the leather spinning in the nylon and the realisation hits me that we've scored. Absolute bedlam. There's a naked man upside down in front of me, passed out, wedged in the seats. I've kissed more strangers than I've kissed lovers in my life time. Put your headphones in and just listen to that noise:
Just as the passed out gentleman recovers, Hernandez equalises. Penalties. The worst penalty shoot out ever ensues. I only watched half of them. I stood watching the feet of the people in the row behind, trying to get a split second ahead of the noise to guess the outcome of each kick. Johnson to win it. Missed. Then Rafael. Scenes.
The first thing that tells me we've done it, is the tide of yellow shirts heading towards Vito. Then I cried for the first time I've ever cried at a football match. I don't know why or how it happened. But it did. A friend of mine said to me he'll always remember my tears because "that's what it means" to achieve what we had.
Bus into town. We eventually found a night club about two hours later. The guy working the ticket booth was a Man City fan. He was pleased! As we descended the stairs we arrived just in time to hear the start of D:Ream's "Things Can Only Get Better". There were a few Sunderland fans in there, obviously!
I woke up in the night in fits of sporadic laughter, I wasn't alone. There were various ad hoc Vito Mannone based songs too. All in all one of the best nights of my life and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Even if we win the final, this might be tough to top.
While plenty made the trek down on the buses offered up by the club, I took the route by car, my Dad driving, mate in the back seat (the latter of whom lives in London and doesn't have a season ticket, and is still searching for a Wembley ticket, so if you're reading this and have a spare...).
Manchester was reached in roughly two hours (bollocks to your slow coaches), and a brief saunter round the ground preceded beers in the city centre. One point to note here: it was 4pm, on a Wednesday afternoon, and the outer vicinity of Old Trafford was heaving. Nothing was going on, people were just milling around - buying merchandise, taking in the size of the ground, whatever. It truly hit home then quite how massive this club is; even allowing for their current struggles, Manchester United remain the biggest club in the world.
Off into Manchester and a cock-up by yours truly saw us end up in a) an overly expensive rum bar and, then, b) a United-only bar. Not to worry though, those places still serve Jagerbombs, and I wasn't driving, so a few nerve-settlers were just what the doctor ordered. Of course, it wouldn't be a trip to the pub without some sort of incident unfolding, cue me smashing a glass all over and having to bandage my hand pre-tram trip back to Old Trafford.
Into the ground and...well, wow. The concourse is red and white blur of song, briefly interrupted every thirty seconds or so as a beer goes flying into the air, cascading onto the heads of everyone below. This night is a party night, whatever the result.
As for the game itself, I suppose it requires little recounting, but that won't stop me blathering on. From a personal point of view, it was the best away end I've been a part of. These past two months have seen some phenomenal away trips - Everton and Newcastle in particular - but nothing will beat that evening. A wall of sound echoed from that corner and high above the goal. Even in adversity, with the extra-time clock winding down ever faster, 9,000 men, women and children remained undeterred.
They were rewarded with the sweetest, most mental scenes I have ever witnessed. Bardsley shaped to shoot, De Gea fumbled, the ball trickled home, the world turned upside down. Look back at footage of the away end and I'm almost certain you will see 9,000 bodies transform into a collective set of limbs shorn of their torsos: it was pure and utter carnage. People were everywhere. The aisles were crammed with screaming lunatics. I ended up atop of my mate, madly screaming "WE'VE F***ING SCORED!!!!" while he frantically tried to check if his balding head was bleeding, having just managed to crack the seat in front of him in half during his descent to the concrete.
I'm fairly certain half the away end will have missed the Hernandez goal. The swift swing from ecstasy to agony was as cruel as it was exhausting. The realisation that we were headed to penalties saw plenty take their seats for the first time all night; this was knackering, brain-addling stuff.
Gardner misses. We're gonna lose. Welbeck misses. Get in. Fletcher misses. We're gonna lose. Fletcher scores (for them). We're gonna lose. Alonso scores. You sexy Spanish bastard. Janujaz misses. Get in. Ki scores. I love Ki. JONES MISSES. "It's come down to Adam Johnson to win it," my dad exclaims. He misses. For God's sake. "This is f***ing ridiculous," utters the baffled bloke behind. Rafael misses. Mayhem. My dad, having lost track of the shoot-out score in the sheer madness of it all, turns from side to side, wondering aloud, "Have we? Have we? Hav.." - his questions are answered when seven chaps from behind plummet onto his head. It is joy in its purest form.
The songs went on long after the final whistle. Indeed, they went on for half the journey home. But what really stuck with me was the exchange I witnessed just one row in front of me.
All game, a young lad - no older than five or six - had been perched on his seat, peering over heads in front, singing his little heart out, accompanied by his dad. As time wore on and the task became ever greater, the downturn in his mood became, understandably, ever more clear. Long after that Rafael miss, the father was still hugging his son, the young lad screaming in delight, while his dad held him and wept. Sheer glee. Beautiful, ecstatic tears. Plenty more were crying that night, but that proved it to me: this club means EVERYTHING to people, and it helps form bonds like few other things can.
No matter what happens at Wembley, it will struggle to top that night at Old Trafford. It was, in every sense, incredible. I feel privileged to have been a part of it.