DURING school holidays, Phil Bardsley would regularly make the short trip from his family home to Manchester United’s old training ground, The Cliff, to get a glimpse of his favourite players being put through their paces by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Bardsley was also attached to his boyhood club’s academy and pay-roll from the age of eight onwards, until he eventually agreed a permanent move to Sunderland six years ago. Even then his returns to Old Trafford have been special, but he thinks his trips to the place he used to call home will feel different from now on.
With David Moyes struggling to revive Manchester United’s season in his first year in charge, hopes of retaining the Premier League title were effectively extinguished at Stamford Bridge on Sunday evening when Chelsea cruised to a 3-1 win.
As well as facing a 14-point gap to close to leaders Arsenal in the remaining 16 league games of the season, Moyes has also witnessed his team drop out of the FA Cup at the third round stage and they trail Sunderland 2-1 ahead of the return leg in the semi-final of the Capital One Cup tonight.
Bardsley will have sympathy for a club so close to his Salford roots, although his feelings are no longer as strong as they once were.
“It will be special, all my family and friends will be going to the game,” said Bardsley. “It will be pretty special to play in the semi-final there and I’m really looking forward to it.
“I’m just trying not to get drawn into the occasion. I just want to go onto the pitch and enjoy it. It’s quite different now Fergie’s not there. It’s a completely different Man United to when I was there. It’s just another team now.”
Bardsley will not be the only former Ferguson fledgling in the Sunderland starting line-up tonight aiming to make things worse for Moyes. Alongside him in the Black Cats defence will be Wes Brown and John O’Shea, two men to have enjoyed incredible silverware success in Manchester for more than a decade.
Despite the Red Devils’ problems, though, O’Shea will not be expecting Sunderland to have things easy as they look to book a first Wembley cup final appearance since 1992.
“United know what they have to do – they’re behind,” said the experienced Irish defender. “We know a draw’s enough but you can never go into a game thinking like that. We just have to play exactly as we did in the first leg.
“For some strange reason we’re playing better away from home. It would be an amazing thing to get to a final with Sunderland. It would match a lot of things I’ve done in my career, it would be incredible.
“We’ve got to go there and score a goal and if we do that it will make it much more difficult for United. But we’re under no illusions. They’ve still got some very good players and you never know which players could be involved as well.”
With the whole of Wearside sensing a cup final date is on the horizon, Sunderland will be backed by a staggering number of 9,000 fans at Old Trafford tonight. The former United contingent in Gus Poyet’s ranks are keen to deliver for them.
“It’s an amazing number, isn’t it? It’s fantastic for the fans that we are going to Old Trafford and taking on the champions of England 2-1 up,” said Bardsley.
“We haven’t got anything to lose. We can go there, try to play with a bit of freedom, and see what happens. There’s a lot of pressure on them because they haven’t been great, have they? We’ll go there, give it our all, and hopefully come away with a place at Wembley.
“We have to go into the game thinking it’s 0-0 and just play the game. We’ll try to score a couple of goals if we can because if we do score we’ve got a hell of a chance. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? It’s fantastic.”
If Sunderland do find the net in Manchester tonight, there is a fair chance a rejuvenated Adam Johnson will be involved. The former Manchester City winger has either scored or provided an assist in nine of the last 11 goals scored by Sunderland.
O’Shea said: “All our attacking players have to step up to the plate during the season and Adam’s in a hot vein of form at the minute. We’ll be getting the ball to him as much as we can but it’s up to other players to use that knowledge.
“Adam himself – if he’s going to have two or three players around him - he’s got to realise other lads will be free and pass it to them. We can use that to our advantage too. We’re going in to a massive occasion and one we can look forward to after coming back from a very poor performance on Saturday to a very strong one in the second half.”