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Soccer - FA Cup Final - Leeds United v Sunderland - Wembley Stadium

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It's the FA Cup and Sunderland, so it’s time to get your hats and scarves out!

We've always had a special fondness for this competition, and ahead of this weekend’s trip to Fulham, Mark Wood looks at the relationship between the Lads and the famous old trophy

Photo by PA Images via Getty Images

As the minutes ticked down during our FA Cup third round tie at Shrewsbury, I could feel a familiar and growing sense of deflation.

It’s an emotion that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Knocked out at the first stage again, and beaten at Shrewsbury again - albeit in a different competition.

At that point, I was waiting for the usual post-match responses from the management and fans alike. A dismissive shrug of the shoulders and the line that it doesn’t really matter, that the league is all important and going out early allows us to concentrate on it.

Shrewsbury Town v Sunderland: Emirates FA Cup Third Round
Luke O’Nien to the rescue
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

However, the players had other ideas and in the space of three minutes, the game was turned on its head

Two quick goals from Ross Stewart and Luke O’Nien, and we were through to the fourth round for the first time since 2015.

That win felt just as good as any league victory, and the turnaround in the last couple of minutes was as spectacular as anything that’s been served up during our 2022/2023 Championship campaign.

On the other hand, why is it that the FA Cup has become something of a poor relation to the league campaign in the last decade or two?

To my mind, it started on a wider level in the 1990’s when then-Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger would play his under-23 prospects in the League Cup.

He was effectively dismissing the importance of a competition that had grown in stature, other leading teams began to follow suit, and over the years it’s become common practice for the tournament to be used as an opportunity for ‘squad rotation’, or in other words, to use players who wouldn’t normally get a game.

There’s also been the overhyping of the Premier League by TV companies since its inception in 1992.

The likes of Sky would have us believe that football wasn’t invented until the Premier League came about, and a byproduct of their excessive coverage was that the cup competitions fell down the pecking order.

All of this has filtered through to the fans who’ve become conditioned to the same prevailing attitude up and down the country.

At Sunderland, an FA Cup tie would’ve guaranteed a larger gate in the days of Roker Park, but during the last twenty years, the crowd has been roughly half the size of the league games in preceding weeks.

Roker Park

It felt like the lowest point came when Phil Parkinson put out what was effectively a reserve team for a first round replay at Gillingham.

He’d decided on behalf of all fans that the fixture was unimportant and he wanted to get down to the real business of failing miserably in League One. The result was we that lost without having a single shot on target and during the next two years, we fell to consecutive defeats to Mansfield at the same stage.

However the FA Cup and our exploits in it are firmly engrained in Sunderland’s history.

It remains the only major trophy that we’ve won in the last fifty years and 2023 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Bob Stokoe’s men pulling off one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time.

I remember just how proud the fans were for many years afterwards, and whenever there was a cup match in the decades that followed, there was always a feeling of magic in the air.

It wasn’t just 1973, either, because there were other great moments along the way.

From Gordon Armstrong's winning header against Chelsea, to John Byrne scoring in every round apart from the final, Michael Gray terrorising Manchester United at Old Trafford, and the run to the semi-finals in 2004 and the League Cup finals of 1985 and 2014.

Cups have given us some our best memories as Sunderland fans and my own favourite in recent years was the sight of Aiden McGeady with the biggest smile I have ever seen from him when he was holding the Football League Trophy at Wembley two years ago.

Soccer - FA Cup Semi Final - Sunderland v Norwich City
John Byrne scores the winner at Hillsborough
Photo by Neal Simpson/EMPICS via Getty Images

How will we fare against Fulham? Who knows? We’re the underdogs, yes, but we’ve often produced some of our best moments in such situations.

All I ask is that Tony Mowbray plays the best team he has available, that the players give their all against superior opposition and that we get behind them as much as we would in any other game this season.

It’s the FA Cup and Sunderland, so don’t let anyone try and convince you it’s not a time to feel excited. It does matter, and it always has.

INTERVIEWS!

Fan Focus: Fulham fan Steve hopes that Patrick Roberts can fulfill his potential at Sunderland!

MATCH PREVIEWS!

Starting XI: Here’s who we think will line up for Sunderland against Fulham today

ROKER REWIND!

On This Day (28 January 1983): Sunderland make the most of their mid-season break!

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