HAVING tasted defeat in the semi-finals of the League Cup once before as a Sunderland player, Michael Gray hopes the Black Cats can go one better by beating Manchester United in this season’s tournament.
Gray played under Peter Reid in 1999 when Sunderland reached the last four of the Worthington Cup, only to be beaten 3-2 on aggregate by Martin O’Neill’s Leicester City, who went on to lose to Tottenham in the final.
And the former left-back, who is now a commentator on talkSPORT, would accept relegation from the Premier League if Sunderland were to go and win the Capital One Cup.
“Given the choice, I would have silverware, without question,” said Gray, ahead of tonight’s semi-final first leg at the Stadium of Light. “We all harp back to 1973, and we’ve done that for a long time. That’s written in the history books. These players have an opportunity to get themselves to a cup final, pick up some silverware.
“I’d take that over beating relegation. People may disagree, but the infrastructure here would mean Sunderland would bounce straight back into the Premier League. Gus Poyet has brought good times back to the ground, the fans are buying into the way he plays football, the players are buying into it, which is more important, I’d love a Wembley outing, it would be perfect for us at the moment.
“Nobody remembers the semi-finalist. They don’t remember the runner-up. They’ve given themselves an opportunity. Go out and express themselves, get to the final and who knows? They could be walking up the steps at Wembley, imagine that.”
Gray, of course, has unhappy memories of the old Wembley, having missed a penalty in the 1998 Division One play-off final against Charlton, but a season later, the Black Cats, riding high in the second tier, saw off Everton in the fourth round and dispatched Luton Town 3-0 to set up a semi-final against O’Neill’s Foxes.
Sunderland lost the home leg 2-1, but were leading 1-0 in the second leg at Filbert Street only for Tony Cottee to grab the equaliser and win the tie.
Gray still looks back on that defeat as an opportunity missed - despite Sunderland going on that season to win the title with a then-record points total and secure consecutive Premier League seventh place finishes in 2000 and 2001.
“That was a killer for us because we were going well at the time,” said Gray, who left Sunderland in 2003 after relegation to the Championship. “Leicester came here and it was a shock to us to lose, it’s so important. We needed to make that 12th man count at home. We didn’t do it on the day, and went into the second leg - as well as we played, we couldn’t get over the line and Leicester went into the final.
“We absolutely murdered Leicester that night. We really did. But they got the goal that saw them through to the final. I remember being in that dressing room after the game. We were so gutted. Everything was built up for the competition. The further we got, beating Everton, it was built up.
“We would never have a better opportunity at winning a cup. That was what Peter Reid said to us at the time and he was right. We came in at the end of the match at Filbert Street, we were gutted. We’d played well but could not get that killer goal.”
While Leicester were in their best period under O’Neill, Sunderland find Manchester United in something of a pickle - adrift in the Premier League, out of the FA Cup - but Gray has warned Poyet’s side against any notions of complacency.
“People say it will be an easier game against Manchester United. I don’t see it that way,” said Gray, who was a youth player at United before joining Sunderland in 1992.
“You’re playing against a wounded soldier. Everyone looks at their home form. They’ve just been knocked out of the FA Cup. I think this is a huge competition for David Moyes and Manchester United.
“It’s going to be tough for Sunderland but they’ve done it against Chelsea in the quarter-finals, there’s no reason why they can’t do it against Manchester United.
“For some reason, the shackles seem to be off in this competition for Sunderland, they play some really good stuff. They’re playing with a bit of freedom. But they’ll need a little bit more than nice football against Manchester United. You need to keep the crowd with you. If they can get a 1-0 and take that to Old Trafford, they have a chance.
With the likes of Roy Keane and Steve Bruce managing Sunderland in the last ten years, there has been a steady supply of players heading over the M62, and the presence of former Red Devils Wes Brown, John O’Shea and Phil Bardsley tonight gives the semi-final a bit of extra spice.
Gray believes United have always been the team he has looked out for. “As a player when I was here, when the fixtures were released you’d look for Newcastle first, then after that it was Manchester United. They were the champions and have been the most successful club since the Premier League started,” he said.
“There is a rivalry. The likes of John O’Shea, Wes Brown and Phil Bardsley, will want to get one over on the club they spent so many years at. It’s there. In that dressing room at Sunderland, they will be ready for it. There’s no questioning that. I’d love to be a player now. “It’s a huge game, home and away, it’s a chance to get to Wembley so you have to give it everything you’ve got.”