I love a cup run. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than the sight of Lee Dixon blindly fondling balls recently disgorged from a velvet bag, or however they’re drawing the League Cup these days. Attaching the name of each team to the back of a pack of constipated dachshunds, then choosing fixtures based on the order in which the simultaneously administered laxatives take effect. Probably.
I have an uncle of a certain generation. Too young for Wembley in ’73, but old enough for every trip since. Five walks down Wembley way, filled with anticipation. Five disconsolate final whistle exits. Wednesday’s game offers Sunderland’s best opportunity to make that six, and to make it different this time.
When the League Cup was founded at the beginning of the sixties, it was derided as "Hardaker’s Folly", a pointless cluttering of a football calendar for a trophy with no value. Started just five years after the inaugural European Cup, many saw the addition of another domestic trophy as needlessly parochial and inward-looking, at a time when English teams should have instead been seeking to compete on a European stage.
For many clubs, the League Cup remains something of a sideshow. A distraction. An opportunity to blood the youngsters, without any of the romance or history of the FA Cup. But for us, the League Cup could be everything. We don’t need to look back that far to know what this competition can mean. That extra-time defeat of Chelsea at home. Vito Mannone’s Old Trafford heroics, in what must surely go down as the worst penalty shootout of all time. Fabio Borini, shrugging off Vincent Kompany to slot home and send the red and white hordes into raptures. The League Cup can be a big deal.
But victory tonight isn’t a foregone conclusion. We all know what will happen if we just turn up expecting to win. Brighton in 2011, Bury and Luton in 2006 and 2007, Notts County in the 2011 FA Cup. Shrewsbury might be two divisions below us, but they’d love a cup run too. More than that, the difference a cup run can make to a team like Shrewsbury’s accounts can be enormous. Fail to take this game seriously, and mark my words, Sunderland will lose.
So I suppose in the end, this is a plea. To David Moyes, to the players, to the fans. Since the year 2000, Leicester, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, Birmingham and Swansea have all managed to get to Wembley and come away smiling. This is the trophy Sunderland can win. So, on Wednesday night, let’s go for it. Let’s treat this game like what it is, the biggest game of the season. At least until round three.