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Sunderland v Leeds United - FA Cup Third Round

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For Sunderland, the desire to focus on the league could be balanced by a cup run

After years of viewing it as a hindrance to our league campaign, Matt Smith looks at whether it’s time for us to rediscover our love for the FA Cup

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

There’s no doubt that Sunderland rarely have the luxury of diverting their attention away from the league.

Given that we’re often involved in either a promotion campaign or a battle against relegation, cup competitions can offer a pressure-free respite, or they can be a drain on resources that threatens to scupper our league ambitions.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland: Emirates FA Cup Third Round Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Progress in the Papa John’s Trophy aside, red and white cup runs have been few and far between, with the run to the 2013/2014 League Cup final the only real exception.

Although that trip to Wembley offered a welcome escape from our league struggles, fighting on multiple fronts that season arguably cost us a potential bigger day out, as Gus Poyet felt the need to send a weakened team out against Hull in the FA Cup quarter-finals.

Whether the experience of 13/14 made us overly risk-averse when it came to cup competitions, preferring to use them as an opportunity to protect first-team assets rather than a genuine attempt to progress to the next stage, is debatable.

What is pretty clear, however, is that our record in both the League and FA Cup since then has been pretty lamentable.

The 2014 final also appears to be an outlier as a rare instance of a cup run coinciding with a poor spell of league form.

Not only were we deprived of any fantasies of glory during our plummet through the leagues, but our best run for seven years coincided with arguably our best league campaign since then.

FBL-ENG-LCUP-MAN CITY-SUNDERLAND Photo credit should read ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images

Sitting third in the table by the time we met Arsenal in the quarter-finals in late 2021, we went on to score eight goals in two games, conceding none, to leave us top of the league as 2022 dawned.

Taking all of this into account, and with cup runs undoubtedly having lost their lustre as the top clubs focus on league and European glory, the temptation to commit fully has understandably lessened.

That’s not to diminish the achievements of the teams who’ve beaten us in recent seasons, but as a fan. any disappointment felt was more than compensated for by the feeling that it was probably for the best.

A trip to Wembley is a prospect that even the most dedicated and pragmatic fan considers to be worth chasing, but the risk of fixture backlog and injuries to key players has made it a risk that’s simply not worth taking.

Soccer - FA Cup Final - Liverpool v Sunderland - Wembley Stadium Photo by Ross Kinnaird - PA Images via Getty Images

So, what about the 2022/2023 season?

This was supposed to be yet another key campaign as we sought to establish ourselves in the Championship. Most of us expected a struggle, even if we were confident of being competitive, but we now find ourselves in a reassuringly comfortable position.

I’ve been a fan of Sunderland long enough to know that things can swiftly go south and others may pin their hopes on us going all-out to achieve promotion. Either way, I feel the FA Cup gives our young squad an opportunity for growth that ought to be cherished.

Tony Mowbray seemed to share this thinking as he named a strong team for the Shrewsbury game.

Injuries meant that this was seen as his hand being forced rather than a sign of us treating the competition seriously. However, with our league position looking pretty secure, though arguably misleadingly so given the relatively narrow points gap between the playoffs and the relegation zone, it feels as though we can treat the cup with genuine respect.

It also makes sense for our young players’ development if they can test themselves against potential Premier League quality, too.

The technical gulf against Arsenal last season was by no means glaringly obvious, yet the team would’ve learned a lot about the ruthlessness and focus expected and executed at that level.

Arsenal v Sunderland - Carabao Cup - Quarter Final - Emirates Stadium Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images

The fourth-round draw might’ve felt a bit underwhelming, but it could hardly be any more opportune in terms of providing this young squad with a genuine test, away from home comforts and against an opponent above the level they’re used to.

A glamour tie against Manchester City or Arsenal would’ve set the pulse racing but the likelihood would be that we’d be largely facing their youth prospects. In contrast, it seems that Fulham are likely to field more first-team players in their starting eleven.

Win, lose or draw, the experience should act as another milestone in our young players’ aspiration, actively shared and promoted by the club, to perform at the highest level.

For once, the FA Cup complements rather than threatens both our short and long-term goals and I’m looking forward to Mowbray and the lads embracing it wholeheartedly.

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