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Two Years On - 9000 On Hand As Sunderland Reach Wembley

Today marks two years since Gus Poyet's men came away from Old Trafford as cup finalists, winning on penalties in one of the greatest nights in Sunderland's history.

Clive Mason/Getty Images

I think when I'm old and wrinkly, and looking back at my life, I'll probably consider watching Sunderland win a cup semi final at Old Trafford as the greatest night I've ever had as a football supporter. The game itself had absolutely everything, and the range of emotions I experienced - having gone from the brink of being knocked out in extra time, to going ahead with a minute to go, only for us to concede in added time - is something that you rarely experience as a Sunderland fan.

It was sobering. Literally. We'd had a good drink on the way down and although I know I was there I have absolutely zero recollection of being in Phil Bardsley's dad's club in Salford, nor do I remember watching any of the first hour or so of the game. I kind of regret getting as hammered as I did (as does my mate who was so pissed he was refused entry and missed the entire experience), but once the reality of the situation set in, as the game approached the end of normal time, I can remember everything as clear as day.

Anyone that was there that night can probably relate to what I'm trying to explain. I think once it became apparent that, despite losing the game 1-0 going into the extra time period, we had an unbelievable opportunity to get to a cup final, and the adrenaline that coursed through my body once that had sunk in brought about a feeling that I think I've only experienced on a handful of occasions supporting our club.

I remember now feeling exactly the same during half time of the cup final that year, completely drained mentally by the notion that we were forty-five minutes from lifting a trophy for the first time in my life.

I was sat, sunk in my chair, trying to process the fact we were winning in a cup final. I was thinking about the open top bus going down the sea front, and thinking about the unbelievable party that would almost certainly have happened at Covent Garden. I remember feeling the same when we lifted the curse against Newcastle in 2008, when Kieran Richardson's rocket in front of the North Stand saw us win the first Wear-Tyne derby game in twenty-eight years. I remember feeling just like that when I watched on from the away end at Luton in 2007, as Charlie Hurley and Niall Quinn joined in the celebrations on the pitch having secured the league title.

Those euphoric moments don't come around often supporting Sunderland.

There I was, stood amongst eight thousand, nine-hundred and ninety-nine friends as we nervously awaited something - anything. It was about as intense as I can ever remember a Sunderland match being. I've watched the game back plenty times since and Manchester United were hopeless throughout extra time, but being stood watching from the stands I can remember chewing my nails down to the bone, clinging to the hope that we'd hang on and get a goal.

Looking back - and despite us being bottom of the league at the time - it was about as good a time as any to be playing Manchester United. They were headed towards the end of David Moyes' tenure - not that we knew it at the time - and were suffering having lost the sparkle that Alex Ferguson took with him when he had stepped down at the end of the previous season.

The pressure was firmly on the home side to win after losing the first leg on Wearside, and we set up to defend from the off. Although Jonny Evans scored half an hour into the game it didn't faze our players and we found ourselves going ahead in the most spectacular fashion, gifted a goal by one of the world's best goalkeepers in David De Gea with a minute left to play. Sunderland being Sunderland managed to concede a goal only a minute later to dampen the spirits of the fans and send the game to penalties, and I recall the confidence just dripping out of me, remembering all the shootouts before this one that we had lost over the years. The playoff final of 1998; the Jeff Whitley miss in 2004 that ended our season there and then. Losing to Aston Villa in the 2009 Carling Cup forth round - quite often, with Sunderland, these things rarely end well.

First up, Craig Gardner, so often dependable from the spot. Missed. Over the bar. Danny Welbeck was next. If he scores it gives our opponents a massive advantage - but he misses. Like Gardner, his effort balloons over the frame of the goal.

Next, Steven Fletcher. His effort is tame, and De Gea saves easily. At this point I remember feeling like we had already lost - that feeling was compounded when Darren Fletcher stepped up next to calmly stroke the ball past Vito Mannone.

Then, hope. Marcos Alonso's effort creeps in just past David De Gea's left arm. Game on. Passing him on his way back up the pitch is youngster Adnan Januzaj, and much like Steven Fletcher's effort his is weak and Vito Mannone very comfortably collects it. One-all.

Perhaps the coolest head in our squad, Ki Sung Yeung, is next. Mr Dependable. He strokes it home with ease, and for the first time in the shootout we're ahead. The noise levels from the away end rise slowly, and as Phil Jones makes his way to the penalty spot the crowd chant the name of Vito Mannone. Jones shapes up to the ball horribly, and his penalty curls over the bar.

With this kick, Sunderland can win it. Adam Johnson has the power now to send his side to Wembley, and all he has to do is ensure he scores. Johnson always looks a nervously cut figure to me, but quite often in his time at Sunderland he's proven that when it comes to the big moments he delivers. He takes his time walking to the ball - Lee Mason hands him it, and he calmly places it on the spot, collecting himself before taking what is the most important penalty in the recent history of our football club - saved.

Still, it all comes down to the final penalty - Brazilian right back Rafael is the last kick taker for Manchester United, and needs to score. At this moment I was a nervous wreck, barely able to peer through my fingers at what was going on in front of me. I'm not a religious person but I was stood with my hands together, praying to God to help us out.

One kick from a cup final. One.

Vito Mannone goes the right way and saves.


What happened at that point is nothing more than a blur. I fell at least three rows of stairs and people were flying everywhere, all around me. The noise was deafening, and finding myself under a heap of bodies, clasping for breath, I struggled back to the surface. I can remember seeing the brightness of the floodlights, and the reality of what had occured began to set in. I looked to my right and there's a bloke, at least twenty clem and well over six foot tall, stood, bawling his eyes out. I looked left and there's another lad, who I've never seen before in my life, doing just the same - crying, staring right at me.

The three of us had never met, yet we shared a moment that I'll never forget, hugging the pair of them close with tears streaming down my face. The one thing we all have it common, our love for Sunderland, brought us together. When people who don't watch football tell me 'it's only a game', I proudly regale that story, because to me it's proof enough that football is much, much more than that.

As I climbed up the three rows of stairs that I'd collapsed over, trying to collect myself as I made my way back to my seat, I had a second to take it all in. I surveyed all around me, looking left, then right, the left again. Everywhere you looked there where grown men, crying.

It had been an incredibly difficult season up until that point. Having suffered from a raft of below-par players coming to the club that summer, the departure of Paolo Di Canio, and the seemingly impossible task of lifting ourselves from the bottom of the league table, we finally had something to look forward to. The pressure and angst of underachievement, just for that moment in time, was lifted.

That, people, is why we love this club.

The occasional moments of euphoria are worth every second of the shit we seem to put up with on a weekly basis. All the hard yards - travelling the country and watching them lose - all worth it because nobody - not one person - can take that feeling, those memories, away from any of us stood in the away end at Old Trafford that night.

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