I write this a broken man. An exhausted shell of my former self, with fractured memories of one of the best weekends of my life. You can stick your National Lottery, a weekend culminating in a trip to Wembley for the League Cup final is worth more than millions in the bank. Now imagine if we'd won. In defeat it was worth more than anything, bar the chance of having City's wealth and making it happen every year, I suppose.
Before Wembley, there was Saturday, which began on a train in Newcastle. Avoiding the Grand Central chaos - apparently they cancelled their first train? If that was the case, good work on losing a few customers for life - we got on a packed train at Central Station. A supposedly dry train at that. So dry one of the lads ended up soaked in Hooch about an hour in. So we decided a 25 quid upgrade to first class and some salmon sarnies would serve us better. This was to be a one off anyway, aye? Well, until we knock Hull out of the FA Cup.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Once into London, there wasn't much to do other than get the beers in. I mean, what else has the place got to offer? A Russian festival in Trafalgar Square, perhaps? No thanks.
Before we'd stepped foot out of the hotel we'd already met a few well oiled Sunderland fans, all in good spirits. The warm up for Covent Garden was in full swing. No sign of any City supporters yet, but then again they've been treated to the Wembley experience rather a lot in recent times. Maybe that's why our rather infrequent visits are so special.
As more mates turned up and the beer flowed more freely, it was time to move onto Leicester Square and Covent Garden. Pictures and videos had already begun to circulate on Twitter. The atmosphere looked great. The sound as we left the Tube Station confirmed things. Sunderland fans everywhere, gathered at various pubs or walking between them, singing, chanting and all in good nature. The area outside of the White Swan pub, where there was barely room to breathe, was electric. Shame the pub ran out of pint glasses soon after we turned up. Whoever got there first - everyone - cheers for that. Seriously though, brilliant stuff. I'm sure you've seen the videos and pictures yourselves.
Just down the road, a bunch of lads chanting "Oooooooh Vito Mannone" formed something like a circle pit. Spontaneity like this was happening in pockets everywhere. One gentleman clad in a red and white onesie was even running up and down the middle of the road. Harmless, a little bit hilarious and all in good nature. The way these things should be.
The best scene of the night I witnessed, belonged to a group of Sunderland fans who upon hearing a Hari Krishna group in full song and dance mode, began bellowing out chants of their own from across the street. We found ourselves somewhere in between them. Maybe I imagined the response element of it, but it's certainly how it seemed. It was like rival fans' taking each other on, except one group had nothing to do with football. Class.
Over the course of the two days, I bumped into pretty much every Sunderland fan I know or have met. On the day itself, after breakfast and a couple of pints to ease the hangover and settle the nerves, we set off to Wembley Park on the Tube. Weirdly, a few City fans appeared to have less of a clue of how to get there than us, despite by their own admission having been here "six times in the last three years". As we disembarked at Wembley Park Tube station I overheard one man telling his son, "I told you this would be different to Wigan, there'll be an atmosphere today". He would soon be proved to be more than correct. In fact, the City lot seemed a decent bunch in general.
This was all just preamble for what was to come. With the atmosphere building, we exited the Tube station faced with a sea of red and white. It was spine tingling. Chanting, singing, happiness wherever you looked. Almost immediately, I bumped into a lad from Bulgaria who introduced me to several others who'd made the journey from Eastern Europe. We have fans in every corner of this planet, all as passionate and Sunderland daft as those who hail from the banks of the Wear itself. All were there to resurrect the famous Roker Roar.
As I made my way to Wembley Way proper, I had dry cider tipped in the general direction of my mouth, in the midst of joining in with some Gary Rowell chants with a few lads I know. Cider everywhere, mainly in the direction of an unsuspecting couple, who were lucky to avoid being soaked in apple based booze. I made a quick escape from the bottle wielder and moved on.
Onto Wembley Way and a couple of cans later, it was time to make the walk up the steps to the stadium itself. Suddenly this was becoming very real. No more daring to dream. We were awake and this was reality. Unbelievable.
I arrived at my seat before any of my family, just as Wise Men Say was resonating around the ground. It was inspiring, evocative and it had me choking up a bit. Hearing that song, played for us in that stadium on this occasion; overwhelming doesn't even cover it.
Before long, kick off was upon us. A circus of fire, giant League Cup trophies, a woman on some kind of trapeze, fire shooting up in the air preceded the main event. All pretty irrelevant, if not spectacular, but it wasn't what really caught the eye. That honour belonged to our mascot, little George Johnson, who after leading us out once again, would bring another lump to throats around the ground as he gleefully ran from the centre circle back to the touchline and, if memory serves, jumped into what I assume was a family members' arms. It was him leading us out that perfectly encapsulated what this day meant to not only him, but all of us, not the stage managed fireworks. A memory for him to treasure, which we were all lucky enough to share.
Before long, we were all beaming smiles ourselves as Borini put us ahead. I didn't think that Bardsley equaliser at Old Trafford could be topped but this was elation on another level. Wow. There was a noise like no other, bodies flying, fists in the air, cheers, screams, roars, faces beaming with sheer delight. A family in front of me converged into one giant hug and as I turned to look up at the faces behind me, my own must have had my emotions painted on it. A woman prodded the man stood next to her and then pointed at me before saying, "there's 80 minutes to go!" All I could say was, "I know, but I didn't even expect this". Thinking about the goal now still sends tingles down my spine. And this was a goal in a defeat. Just imagine if we'd won.
Sadly, it wasn't to be. City turned it round in the second half, but still our supporters sang their hearts out. The players - Cattermole in particular - embodied us on the pitch. Full of fight, full of desire, full of endeavour. They also displayed immense levels of quality and we did enough to deserve a draw and an extra half an hour to win it. Unfortunately, with their slender lead protected, City then killed us off on the counter. That's what billions can buy.
Proud to the last, many of us stuck around to applaud our defeated heroes - I can understand those who left however, not wanting to bear witness to City lifting the trophy - and it was a reception they richly deserved. A performance of grit and determination until the end of 90 minutes warranted more applause than we could deliver.
We filed away from the ground, the game over but the weekend still alive for a little longer. The usual post-match, over a pint analysis was put to one side. What was there to say? They'd done us proud and performed brilliantly. Even the City fans agreed, with one telling me, "There's no way you'll go down playing like that". Here's hoping he's right.
It was all over bar another night in my cell like hotel room and a train ride home. It was life affirming weekend, even in defeat. Now just imagine if we get past Hull in the next round of the FA Cup and ask yourself, "Dare we dream again"?