WITH a fleet of around 130 coaches due to head for Old Trafford tonight in the hope of witnessing something special, Sunderland manager Gus Poyet has challenged his players to use the Capital One Cup as an opportunity to strike a special bond with the club’s fans.
There will be an incredible 9,000 away supporters inside the home of Manchester United all hoping to see Sunderland secure a place at a Wembley cup final for the first time since 1992.
The Black Cats’ progression to the last four of the competition has provided excitement and relief to a campaign spoiled by a fight to climb out of the Premier League relegation zone.
Poyet has been savouring the break from the league troubles in the build up to the trip to Manchester, where he must try to ensure his players preserve a 2-1 first leg advantage.
If Sunderland are successful then they can start to plan for a historic League Cup final appearance against Manchester City at Wembley on March 2.
And such an occasion, the manager feels, will mean Sunderland’s players have an even greater chance to be remembered by the River Wear forever.
Poyet, well aware of the fact that Sunderland’s last major silverware success was 41 years ago, said: “You meet people on the street, I am living in the Sunderland area, and because I can’t cook and go to the restaurants I see people every day and there are some weeks you know how much it means to them and this is one of those weeks.
“People talk about Wembley and how important it is to win this game and they don’t want to know about the league.
"I am the one bringing the league into it. I say ‘what about the league?’ and they just say ‘no, the league doesn’t matter.’ “They just want to go to Wembley. It shows with 9,000 going to Old Trafford how much it means to them and this city and what football means here.
“There is no better connection or feeling for a player and staff than to really become supported for the team that you play for and work for because you win trophies.
“Celebration brings people together and then you feel for the club in a different way after all that work. I can tell you that from experience and my past. I would like my players to have that feeling.
“I want these players to remember this club from inside. That is a unique moment in your career.”
Huge strides have been made already under Poyet’s watch over a team which had looked destined for the Championship before his arrival.
Prospects of staying up have improved during a run of just one defeat in ten in all competitions, but tonight will be a night when Premier League safety can be put completely to one side.
“If we can win it is a step forward as a club – for the players, the individuals and the fans,” said Poyet. “It will change a little bit this difficult season, to give something to them to celebrate and to have the option to win a trophy.
“We have put ourselves in a nice position and now we need to try to do our best to win it.
“There are plenty in my squad who have never had this opportunity, either because they are too young or they have been playing in teams that have never had this possibility.
“This is why we need to do everything possible to give those players a chance to feel what it means to play in a final at Wembley and have the opportunity to win a trophy.”
International clearance came through yesterday meaning defender Santiago Vergini can take his place on the bench against Manchester United.
He will be joined by the latest recruit, goalkeeper Oscar Ustari, who has moved from Spanish club Almeria until the end of the season.
The 27-year-old, who has played for Argentina twice, only jetted in to the North-East last night to bring an end to the search for a goalkeeper in the absence of the injured Keiren Westwood.
Poyet, who could be tempted in to selling Lee Cattermole for £5m amid interest from Stoke City this month, said: “When Oscar became available and was happy to come we went to the limit and everyone at the club has been incredible to get that done.
“We were struggling to get it done in time but we got it down with the doc and everyone got it completed. He will train tonight [Tuesday]. We had people in Spain to get the medical done.”
It is the third signing of Poyet’s tenure and the latest of those not involving Roberto De Fanti, who lost his job as director of football on Friday.
Poyet admits he is more hands on now. He said: “I was involved in the opinions and the decisions about players before, but Roberto De Fanti was doing his job.
“Now we are doing it a little bit different – sharing a little bit more responsibility. I am doing a bit more work. It is maybe the difference between being a head coach and a manager.”
It will be some story if Ustari has to make his debut at Old Trafford at some point and Poyet knows the pressure on David Moyes to deliver tonight is huge.
The Uruguayan said: "David deserves credit because he took the most difficult job in the world. After Sir Alex Ferguson left it was always going to be the most difficult job in the world.
“It's a big change, it's not like when you change managers at any other club after one two or three years. I hope he's given time to change things round because he deserves that for what he's done at Everton.”