On the back of the terrifying, yet exhilarating ride that was the previous season, Sunderland and Gus Poyet were hoping to avoid the requirement of a great escape, although another cup run wouldn’t have been dismissed so easily.
Despite lofty ambitions of Premier League consolidation, investment in the playing staff was relatively modest in the summer of 2014. A repeat of the mass influx of the previous summer wasn’t replicated, and other than the outlay of £10 million on Jack Rodwell from Manchester City, the purse strings were tightened.
The rest of the squad strengthening that summer consisted of Patrick van Aanholt from Chelsea for £1.5 million, Will Buckley from manager Gus Poyet’s former club Brighton for £2.5 million, Costel Pantililmon from Manchester City and Jordi Gomez from Wigan Athletic both on free transfers. We also didn’t realise it yet, but Ricky Alvarez, a loan signing from Internazionale for the season, would end up as one of Sunderland’s most expensive signings from our ten year stay in the Premier League.
As memories of Wembley, and epic victories over Chelsea and Manchester United began to fade, Sunderland’s Premier League tradition kicked in at the beginning of the new season. It took until 4th October, the seventh league fixture of the season, for us to record our first victory of the campaign.
Only two more victories would be on the board by the time Sunderland faced Championship side Leeds United in the FA Cup 3rd round at the Stadium of Light four days into the new year, as Gus Poyet was becoming increasingly aware of the pressure building around his position.
After Neil Redfearn’s Leeds were beaten via a Patrick van Aanholt strike, we then dispatched Kit Symons’ Championship strugglers Fulham with the aid of a replay to make it to the fifth round of the competition with relative ease.
On paper the draw for the fifth round was relatively kind, as Sunderland were drawn away to League One side Bradford City. Phil Parkinson’s Bradford were a well organised side that sat just outside the League One play-off positions, and boasted two former Sunderland players in the form of Billy Knott and Jon Stead.
Jon Stead was known on Wearside for taking 30 games to get off the mark after joining in 2005, spawning the T-shirt that stated “I saw Jon Stead score a goal”.
Even subconsciously, Sunderland fans minds might have wandered with the thought of the fifth round being a formality and jumping ahead to the prospect of being one game away from a second trip to Wembley in as many years.
On the day however, the travelling support, in excess of 4,000, that made the trip to Valley Parade could see that this would be anything but a formality. It was a typically cold February Saturday afternoon, which gave that FA Cup giant killing feeling, and in front of us was a surface that required a pitch inspection purely to find the grass that once existed on it.
A full house at Valley Parade and a pitch about as even as my old un-ironed Subbuteo pitches I had as a kid, would mean that as kick-off approached, the position in the English football pyramid now counted for nothing.
As the game finally kicked off, it took the League One side all of two minutes to prove that point correct.
Filipe Morais delivered a free-kick from the right that the Sunderland defence not only seemed to avoid to clear as much as possible, but also took an un-natural bounce in the mud to land at Billy Clarke on the volley. Clarke aimed a volley that was either way off target or hit with the intention of putting it back across the face of goal, until it struck John O’Shea on the back of the knee and past the despairing Vito Mannone.
The home sides tails were up and the fans were right behind them sensing a repeat of the previous round when the came back from two goals behind to beat Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Sunderland struggled to threaten Ben Williams goal at all in the first half and looked to the bench at half time. A calf injury had ruled out Jermain Defoe, and it was Connor Wickham who replaced the ineffective Danny Graham to partner Steven Fletcher up top.
The second half continued in much the same way as the first half had played out, a typical frantic cup-tie played at breakneck speed where especially the home side suffocated any time on the ball that some players might have ordinarily expected.
This was demonstrated perfectly on the hour mark as Bradford pressed Sunderland into a mistake whilst clearing our lines and the ball found itself to Jon Stead just inside the box. The striker displayed none of the attributes that lead to a record of one goal during his 18-month spell on Wearside, as he left Wes Brown lying in a heap as he feigned to shoot, and struck a low shot underneath the desperate Mannone.
With four minutes left on the clock, George Honeyman replaced Ricky Alvarez to make his Sunderland debut, as Gus Poyet searched for inspiration from somewhere but it wasn’t to be, with Bradford City and Phil Parkinson progressing to the FA Cup quarter-final.
It was maybe inevitable after this result, but Gus Poyet was sacked a month later following a 4-0 defeat at home to Aston Villa as Sunderland sat one point and one place above the bottom three. As on so many other occasions, a potential sliding doors moment that didn’t go our way - was it really only six years ago?
Bradford City: Williams, Darby, Meredith, Liddle, Davies, McArdle, Morais, Clarke (Yeates), Hanson, Stead (Zoko), Knott (Halliday) Substitutes not used: Urwin, MacKenzie, Sheehan, Routis
Sunderland: Mannone, Jones (Vergini), O’Shea, Brown, van Aanholt, Alvarez (Honeyman), Bridcutt, Larsson, Johnson, Fletcher, Graham (Wickham) Substitutes not used: Pantilimon, Coates, Agnew, Gomez