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Road to Wembley: How Sunderland’s run to the 2014 League Cup Final brought life back to Wearside

As Wembley fever once again hits Wearside we look back at Sunderland’s inspirational run towards the 2014 League Cup final, where for just a brief amount of time we all dared to dream that the impossible could happen...

Sunderland v Manchester United - Capital One Cup Semi-Final: First Leg Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

The 2013/14 season was one of the craziest seasons in a period when madness reigned supreme at the Stadium of Light.

Ellis Short believed that after the stewardship of Steve Bruce and Martin O’Neill that something different was required - so Roberto de Fanti and Paolo di Canio were brought in to take control of the asylum.

A recruitment process ensued that was different from any which had previously been seen - players were sourced from far flung European Leagues as long-serving players were cast aside, whilst the atmosphere in the changing room was said to be poisonous.

As we started the season we were so struck with the changes throughout the club that we didn’t know whether to be excited or terrified. We were always hopeful, though, so a cup run was something that we could look forward to... and what a run we had in the Carling Cup.

Sunderland v Fulham - Premier League
A period of genuine madness.
Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images

We started the campaign in the second round with a home tie against MK Dons - straightforward enough, right?

Well, not really.

MK Dons included a young Dele Alli plus Patrick Bamford with future Sunderland disaster Brendon Galloway on the bench. With di Canio in charge he looked to blood his what were still at that time thought of exciting new signings: David Moberg Karlsson, Ji Dong-won, Cabral and Jozy Altidore.

MK Dons raced to a 2-0 lead after 55 minutes. It was one of those nights were the sparse crowd meant that I swapped ends at half time and waited in anticipation for the attack at the North Stand in the second half.

Unfortunately, I had to sit on my hands for 78 minutes until Jozy Altidore (seriously) pulled one back and then substitute Connor Wickham bagged a couple to put us in the lead before Adam Johnson (I assume we are allowed to name him) added a fourth. A chaotic performance typical of a chaotic time.

By the time we had to face Peterborough, again at home, in the third round di Canio had been slung out of town in disgrace, and the steady hand of Kevin Ball was in charge.

Ball brought back the likes of Gardner, Larsson and Cattermole back into the team and for the few games he was in charge he got some good stuff out of summer star signing Emanuele Giaccherini who opened the scoring. A less celebrated summer recruit Valentin Roberge nodded in a second to earn a comfortable win.

So, two rounds done and a third manager of the season appointed - the ‘increyable’ Gus Poyet. The Uruguayan former Chelsea midfielder immediately stamped a new passing and possession-heavy style on the team - and it was rewarded with a home derby win, and arguably this changed the dynamics of the season.

Sunderland v Aston Villa - Premier League
Gus Poyet.
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Early November camea round and we had another home tie against Southampton - there were no dreams of Wembley yet, but we were improving.

Southampton, with what now seems like a bizarre combination of Mauricio Pochettino as manager and Kelvin Davis in goal, arrived and a sparse crowd of 15,996 saw Sunderland line up with a much more balanced and stronger team including Wes Brown, John O’Shea, Ki Sung-Yeung and the reprieved Phil Bardsley.

Bardsley - looking for redemption after the di Canio era - fired us ahead on 59 minutes and Seb Larsson added a second before a Yoshida goal on 89 minutes lead to a nervous few moments. Thankfully, the final whistle went, however, and we were through.

Thoughts of a proper run were surfacing.

Sunderland v Tottenham Hotspur - Premier League
Talk about chalk and cheese!
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Those thoughts were dampened, however, when we drew Chelsea in the fifth round of the competition. Chelsea who we faced in our cup runs of 1985 and 1992 - could we beat them again?

Our opponents were a class team with Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Kevin de Bruyne and Samuel Et’oo in their expensive side. The atmosphere for the game was nothing like 1985 or 1992 though, as just over 20,000 fans found themselves in the stadium.

Back when Lee Cattermole was not a goal machine, he managed to score in the wrong end as Chelsea lead just after half time. Fabio Borini - who was quickly becoming a hero - equalised at the death against his former club to take us to extra time.

Jose Mourinho teams are notoriously strong and fit, so despite the psychological boost of a late equaliser it still felt like a long shot. Ki, however, had other ideas, knocking in an excellent winner at the death.

The few who were there started to think about daring to dream.

It felt like a long time between that Chelsea game and the next match - a two legged tie against Manchester United.

It was a mad season with deep troughs and huge peaks, and so Manchester United - now lead by one David Moyes - held no fear.

By early January the quality of Marcos Alonso had been added; Cattermole, Bardsley and Larsson had new leases of life, and the summer scattergun recruits were fading into the background. Despite Moyes, United were still a top side with the likes of De Gea, Carrick, Giggs and Welbeck able to give anyone a game.

This was the first leg of a semi-final, our first semi-final in over ten years. A Ryan Giggs own-goal was cancelled out by a Vidic equaliser before that beautifully cool Italian Fabio Borini scored from the spot to give us the slenderest of leads to take to Old Trafford.

That night at Old Trafford will go down as one of the greatest away followings in our club’s history as 9,000 mental Mackems travelled to Manchester as underdogs - each of us daring to dream that we had a chance to go to the new Wembley for the first time. Every Sunderland fan who was there was up for it and everyone of us will remember that night forever.

Manchester United v Sunderland - Capital One Cup Semi-Final: Second Leg
Massive Lads’ Fans.
Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

The 22nd of January 2014 was an immense night.

Poyet now had a reasonably settled side to play with. Former United players Bardsley, O’Shea and Brown were supplemented by Alonso, Cattermole, Ki, Larrson, and Johnson with Fletcher and Borini up front.

However, the hero of the night was Vito Mannone.

A tense 90 minutes saw a Jonny Evans goal take the match into extra time. Then in the 119th minute Phil Bardsley, who had suffered so much under di Canio, shot from the edge of the box and the world’s best keeper David De Gea spilled his shot into the far corner with a minute to play.

Bodies flew in the stands, absolute pandemonium, cut heads, bruised knees, unbounded joy... and then that little shit Januzaj scored to take the match to penalties.

So, we had a penalty shoot out in a semi final at Old Trafford, literally the stuff of dreams. But dare we dream at the Theatre of Dreams?

We could hardly watch as surely the worst penalty shootout of all time was played - miss after miss, save after save until we reached the point where Rafael da Silva had to score.

Mannone guessed right, though, and Poyet galloped across the turf to embrace the Italian stopper in a Bob Stokoe-esque manner. Moyes was miserable, and the 9,000 celebrated wildly - Wembley here we come.

A weekend in London in early March 2014 was something that any Sunderland fan of this generation will remember for the rest of their lives with a smile, and a giggle.

What a time drinking the capital dry, kidnapping the Chuckle Brothers, and all sorts of other shenanigans that are probably best left unsaid.

It was the weekend when the Mags fumed as we reversed the Cheesy Chips crack onto them and did the region proud with fun and humour.

The match got off to a great start, with Borini scoring a fantastic goal with the outside of his right foot. Then, another chance for Borini was not taken yet we were ahead, at half time, against Manchester City. Dare to dream? We did more than that.

However this is Sunderland and dreams rarely come true.

A goal by the great Yaya Touré and another one straight after from Samir Nasri killed those dreams, yet had Stephen Fletcher remembered that he had a right foot we may have equalised before Jesus Navas scored a cruel third.

What a cup run, though, and what a time.

There was immense passion for Poyet’s team and the club was at its height - a great cup run and a mad season... and I haven’t even mentioned what came next!

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