I’ve always looked forward to the draw for the FA Cup third round, hoping that each season will be our turn to upset the odds and go all the way to lifting the trophy that distinctly resonates with the club’s history.
I’d like to think that every Sunderland fan has watched that ‘73 Cup Final on numerous occasions, peering through their fingers as Jimmy Montgomery pulls off the legendary double save which earned him a place in Mackem folklore against the formidable Leeds United.
Even though that momentous day came almost three decades before I began supporting the club, the significance of that memory remains at the forefront of what supporting Sunderland AFC is all about for the majority of us.
As I sat watching the draw, I hoped for the easiest fixture possible in order to start us off on the right foot, allowing the fans to dream once again - yet what came was an underwhelming draw away to a Middlesbrough side that we traditionally lose against. It’s safe to say that I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the prospect of it, nor were the majority of my fellow Sunderland supporters.
The problem I have is that, despite being billed as such, this isn’t a derby game.
Just imagine beating Middlesbrough six times in a row - yeah, it would be great, but there’s not a chance the reaction to such an impressive string of results would be the same as the corresponding achievement against our unwashed brethren just north of Gateshead.
We’ve got a rotten recent record against Boro, with four defeats in as many encounters - three of which have came in the last couple of years. Only one goal has been scored by the lads in these fixtures: a Patrick van Aanholt consolation in a 2-1 home defeat.
Is this reluctance to take the Middlesbrough game seriously holding the team back?
It’s as if we’d rather take pride in not caring about the game rather than wanting to do anything for the three points, and I feel this has been mirrored in our performances.
The build-up to what we consider a derby game is not an enjoyable period. The overwhelming nerves around the region don’t allow for a moment’s rest when you know Newcastle are coming to town.
This seems to be when the team, club, and fans have come together in order to give us the greatest chance of victory over our nearest rivals. It is evident that we have thrived under the derby day pressure in recent times, so why not approach the game this weekend in a similar manner?
The overriding feeling from the Middlesbrough fans is that this game is a derby, and that rather powerful sentiment clearly translates to the players on the pitch who understand the importance of the fixture - something our players need to comprehend the magnitude of following their disappointing performances in the previous fixtures.
As a Sunderland fan, we all know the bare minimum we expect from the players is a bit of passion and desire, especially considering the club’s current position. So surely approaching this game in a derby-like fashion is the best way to draw out that side of the players?
Reluctantly, I think this is the only way we are going to break the hoodoo that we seem to have against the Teessiders.
The sheer amount of fans that will make the short journey down the A19 this weekend is enough to make me believe that we want to take this game seriously, and the atmosphere should go some way to creating the best possible platform to keep us in the competition.
If we channel the raw passion we associate so strongly with derby day against those on Teesside, who knows how quickly we could get the ball rolling through the rounds of the FA Cup?