I remember the day vividly, but I almost feel as though I wasn’t present for any of it, as if it was another person who experienced the energy sapping events that occurred.
On the morning of the match I awoke with a horrible, sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach. My mind was going wild thinking of all the potential scenarios that could unfold. In one moment I was picturing a Sunderland player wheeling away towards the travelling red and white army after booking our place at Wembley, the next I saw Manchester United scoring an early double to dampen any hope of an historic victory. The opposing sides of my brain weren’t just in conflict, they were trading blows in the middle of the ring and connecting with every punch.
The result was my head being absolutely battered, so as soon as it was socially acceptable to do so….about 10am in this case, I did what any self-respecting Mackem would do in such a situation - text the lads and headed to the pub to engage in an alcohol-fuelled therapy session.
The next time anyone tries to tell you that football is only a game then I suggest that you unleash unrelenting violence upon them until you are dragged off their twitching body. Such people are a menace to society and won’t be missed. The fact that a group of adults were sat discussing and getting worked up over an event that hadn’t happened yet and we couldn’t control says it all about the effect the sport has on usually rational human beings.
After what seemed like a lifetime of predicting pondering and just talking out of our backsides it was time to leave for Manchester. As corny as it sounds it very much had the feeling of a tribe going to war as the procession of buses streamed out of Wearside on their way to enemy territory. Although, our regiment were soon halted by the first comfort break of the journey just outside of Washington - was this nerves or had too many people indulged in some lunchtime settlers? Probably a bit of both.
The journey down was possibly the most stress-free part of the trip - for the most part it was like a normal away trip. That was until somebody started off a chant of “Que Sera Sera” at the back of the bus, which made me feel physically sick and caused some on the bus to shout him down.
Eventually we arrived in Manchester where once again the magnitude of the situation hit home with the force of a sledgehammer. Just seeing the stadium made the whole occasion seem so real, as the masses of red and white made their way to the theatre of dreams there was a real sense that we could defy the odds and progress to the final.
As the players completed the warm up they received a heroes reception as they applauded the travelling fans, which was only topped by the welcome they got when they walked out onto the pitch.
The roar was deafening. A battle cry of “Ha’way The Lads” went up and for the first but certainly not the last time that evening the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
But soon every Sunderland fans worst fear was realised when former Sunderland man Jonny Evans drifted into an unmarked position at the back post and nodded home to give United the lead.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, this would be cause for the floodgates to open - however, this was not the Ferguson side which exuded self-confidence we’d become accustomed to. This side looked as though they’d forgotten how to win.
Although the Wearsiders were well-organised and difficult to break down, United lacked the swagger and belief to break them down and were restricted to long shots. In fact, Sunderland very nearly secured their place at Wembley inside the 90 minutes when Marcos Alonso fizzed an effort across the face of goal.
But as is typical of the Black Cats there was one final heart-stopping moment. United won a free kick on the edge of the area with the last kick of the game. If they scored, Sunderland were out. 75,000 people held their breath. I could hardly watch as Januzaj stepped up.
On reflection, it was a tame effort which Mannone should save 100 times out of 100. But in the moment, time seemed to stand still as the ball hovered in the air for what seemed an eternity. When the Italian leaped through the air and pounced on the ball. It felt as though we’d scored a goal. We breathed again and an ear-splitting cry of “Ooooo Vito Mannone” echoed from the Sunderland end. It was tense but we took the game into extra time.
For the next 30 minutes we tried to suck the ball in, every single chant Sunderland chant known to man was recited and the roar every time we attacked made the foundations shake. But on the pitch as much as we huffed and puffed it looked as though United were going to cling on to set up a final with their rivals, Manchester City.
Then, the unthinkable happened - Phil Bardsley’s desperate effort from just outside the area evaded De Gea’s grasp and nestled in the bottom corner.
An explosion went off in the away end; bodies flew off in every direction. Grown men welled up with raw emotion, the players jubilantly celebrated.
In typical Sunderland style, however, we almost ballsed it up - just a minute later Javier Hernandez bundled the ball home to take the game to penalties. I felt sick. Not moments before I had been laid out on the ground with bodies on top of me, but now with the feeling of pure joy still clinging on in the pit of my stomach I felt more emotions than I thought possible.
I thought we had blown it, but in true Sunderland style they had one more surprise up their sleeves.
In the best and worst penalty shootout of all time, Craig Gardner and Steven Fletcher missed for Sunderland before the Darren Fletcher converted for United.
Marcos Alonso and Ki dispatched their subsequent penalties and United kept on missing, giving Adam Johnson the chance to seal Sunderland’s place at Wembley - he missed, and again we all thought the lads had passed up the chance of a lifetime.
Only seconds later all of our dreams came true.
Rafael struck a penalty to Vito Mannone’s right, but the Italian was equal to it and clutched the ball to his chest like a chocoholic clutching an Easter egg.
That night encapsulated what it means to be a Sunderland fan - from tension to delirium to agony and pure joy, we went through it all.