As Sunderland fans waved goodbye to 2013 we were in desperate need of some sort of hop to cling on to. Sitting four points from safety, rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, Gus Poyet was struggling to kickstart our season going into his third month as manager after replacing Paolo Di Canio.
January 2014 began with a defeat at the Stadium of Light to Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa on new year’s day, followed closely by a victory in the FA Cup against Carlisle United who were managed by ex-Sunderland midfielder Graham Kavanagh.
This set Gus Poyet and his side up to at least carry a bit of confidence and hope into the first leg of the League Cup semi-final clash with the visit to Wearside of Manchester United. On the journey to the semi-final, Sunderland had been led by three managers to be only one step away from a trip to Wembley.
In Paolo Di Canio’s only victory as Sunderland manager in a competitive game during 2013-14, MK Dons were dispatched in the 2nd round at the Stadium of Light in August. Kevin Ball was the man in charge by the time Peterborough United were sent packing after a convincing 2-0 win for the caretaker manager.
It was Gus Poyet who took care of the 4th and 5th rounds, where he was the architect of victories over Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea respectively, both at the Stadium of Light.
Next up it was David Moyes and Manchester United who were attempting to stop Sunderland’s march to a first domestic cup final since 1992 and the former Everton manager was struggling to fill the very large shoes of Sir Alex Ferguson as manager at Old Trafford.
After taking charge officially in June 2013 as the new manager of the Premier League champions, things hadn’t quite gone to plan. United sat 7th in the Premier League, eleven points behind leaders Arsenal going into the first leg. They had also just been dumped out of the FA Cup in the week leading up to the fixture by Swansea City, where it was also the distinction of being the first time the Welsh club had ever beaten Manchester United at Old Trafford.
There were signs that the home fans began to believe when 31,547 turned up for the first leg, after only 20,731 had attended for the visit of Chelsea in the previous round. This would still be down on the average for the season to that point which stood at around 40,000.
The opening exchanges of the game were fairly even as the two sides worked each other out and appeared tentative to push forward early on. Gus Poyet’s side had maybe the better share of the play, with Alonso impressing down Sunderland’s left but we struggled to create any real opening.
Manchester United then began to turn the screw and Giggs struck the bar before being the cause of United having a goal ruled out for offside when Adnan Januzaj thought he had given the visitors the lead.
On the stoke of half-time, Sunderland broke the deadlock. A deep Larsson free-kick found Wes Brown who managed to nod across the face of goal, where a race between Bardsley and Giggs ended up with the ball in the back of the net with uncertainty who got the final touch, but who cared.
It took only six minutes of the second half for United to get back on level terms. With Vito Mannone rooted to his goal line, Nemanja Vidic had the simple job of nodding home from close range to make it all square.
With the game stretched it became a bit more end-to-end as both sides looked to take a clear advantage into the second leg in Manchester, and with just over twenty-five minutes remaining, Sunderland were awarded a penalty. Step forward Fabio Borini.
The resultant penalty was never in doubt, with De Gea already moving in the wrong direction Borini calmly put the home side in the driving seat in the League Cup semi-final, but there was still a job to do. From that point it was attack v defence as it was a question of - could Manchester United break down a resilient Sunderland rear guard.
Chance after chance were wasted as the likes of Larsson and Bardsley ran themselves into the ground in order to take a lead into the second leg. Eventually the final whistle went and Sunderland were halfway to a trip to Wembley in a domestic final, where surely we’d make it without any drama at Old Trafford... right?
Sunderland: Mannone, Bardsley, O’Shea, Brown, Alonso, Cattermole, Ki, Larsson, Giaccherini (Johnson), Borini, Fletcher (Altidore) Substitutes not used: Dixon, Celustka, Gardner, Ji
Manchester United: De Gea, da Silva, Evans (Smalling), Vidic, Evra, Valencia (Hernandez), Carrick, Cleverley (Fletcher), Januzaj, Giggs, Welbeck Substitutes not used: Lindegaard, Buttner, Kagawa, Zaha