There was no doubting the revival that occurred at the beginning of Martin O’Neill’s tenure as Sunderland manager following the sacking of Steve Bruce on the 30th November 2011.
Before Bruce was sacked, he had presided over the first thirteen Premier League fixtures of the 2011-12 season and recorded two victories, Martin O’Neill won four of his first six in charge. Sunderland also sat fourth from bottom of the table when the former Nottingham Forest midfielder was handed the reigns, and it took three weeks for the new manager to lift us up to 10th.
Around a month after his appointment, our FA Cup campaign kicked off away to Peterborough United where were rewarded with a fourth round home tie with Middlesbrough following a routine 2-0 victory at London Road.
Tony Mowbray’s Middlesbrough were a much tougher proposition and after a 1-1 draw at the Stadium of Light, we required a Stephane Sessegnon goal in the 113th minute in extra-time to see us through to the fifth round.
The draw for the fifth round, even though it provided home advantage, wasn’t kind. To reach the quarter-final of the FA Cup - a feat we’d achieved on only three occasions since winning the cup in 1973 to this point - we would have to overcome Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.
It paints a picture of the expectation of winning our fifth round tie that a crowd of 26,042 was in attendance to witness our cup clash with Arsenal, when 40,312 packed into the Stadium of Light to see us go down 2-1 to the same opposition only seven days earlier.
Despite the lack of conviction from the home support that we would come out on top against the Gunners, we finished 2-0 winners thanks to a Kieran Richardson goal five minutes before half-time and an own goal from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
In the modern era, as much as I disagree with the formula, the fact remains that the quarter-final is now only one victory away from a trip to Wembley. Gone are the days of epic semi-final clashes at Villa Park and Old Trafford, replaced by warming up for a Wembley final with a Wembley semi-final, nevertheless, being in the last eight makes you think what might be.
in the draw, we’d managed to avoid Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, but missed out on favorable draws such as Bolton Wanderers, Leicester City and Stoke City, when we were given the task of travelling to Goodison Park for a place in the semi-final.
Our record at Everton isn’t the greatest, having lost 61 from 95 competitive games at Goodison and on this occasion we had Simon Mignolet to thank that we forced a replay. A rare goal from Phil Bardsley in the 12th minute was cancelled out by Tim Cahill around ten minutes later, and in the late stages we were forced to hang on.
At this point, cup fever began to kick-in on Wearside. The two clubs were level on points in the Premier League at the time of the replay and a feeling of FA Cup romance was in the air ahead of a packed Stadium of Light under the floodlights.
Over 43,000 was in attendance, and it was back in the days when the away contingent occupied the whole of the South Stand, giving it the feel of a real traditional cup-tie. The expectation was high and there was a feeling that with the big crowd behind them, Martin O’Neill’s side would come flying out of the blocks, but it wasn’t to be.
Even though the Everton team coach only arrived an hour before kick-off, David Moyes’ side were dominant from the word go. We had Simon Mignolet to thank once again that it took the away side 24 minutes to open the scoring. Magaye Gueye broke down the left and pulled it back beyond Sotirios Kyragiakos - one of those who had a particularly bad night - and into the path of Nikica Jelavic to side foot home.
The way we played on the night meant that it was virtually game over at that point, but although we didn’t look like threatening the Everton goal, as long as we didn’t concede a second we stood a chance. But just before the hour mark, it happened.
Jelavic went through on goal at a tight angle and due to good work by Mignolet, could only scuff a shot across goal that was going well wide of the far post, but enter stage left, David Vaughan. As he attempted to control the ball with his left foot before clearing his lines, he stumbled and swept the ball into the net with his right.
The Welshman had also been guilty of giving the ball away with a sloppy pass to provide Jelavic the opportunity in the first place and he clearly wanted the ground to swallow him up once the ball hit the net.
It summed up our performance on the night however as it merely put us out of our misery in a game that Everton fully deserved their reward of a place in the semi-finals. It left everyone scratching their head as to where the performance came from, not least Martin O’Neill, where you can hear him discuss with us on the Roker Rapport podcast here.
Another “what if?” to add to the long line during our history.
Tuesday 27th March, 2012
FA Cup - Quarter-Final Replay
Sunderland 0-2 Everton
[Jelavic 24’, Vaughan (OG) 57’]
Sunderland: Mignolet, Bardsley, Kyrgiakos (Vaughan), Turner, Bridge (Campbell), Larsson, Cattermole, Gardner, McClean, Sessegnon, Bendtner Substitutes not used: Gordon, Kilgallon, Meyler, Elmohamady, Ji
Everton: Howard, Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Baines, Osman, Gibson, Fellaini, Gueye (Jagielka), Cahill (Hibbert), Jelavic (Stracqualursi) Substitutes not used: Hahnemann, Duffy, McFadden, Anichebe