WES BROWN has admitted it was impossible to foresee Sunderland appearing in a major final at Wembley when they were imploding under Paolo Di Canio just four months ago.
Wednesday’s remarkable penalty shoot-out win over Manchester United means the Black Cats can begin to prepare for a Capital One Cup final appearance against Manchester City at the start of March.
The euphoria that greeted Vito Mannone’s decisive penalty save at Old Trafford stood in marked contrast to the scenes that accompanied the end of September’s 3-0 defeat at West Brom, a game that represented the club’s lowest ebb as Di Canio remonstrated with the club’s fans on the pitch at the Hawthorns.
Since then, the mood has been completely transformed under Gustavo Poyet, with previously exiled players successfully returned to the fold and the Black Cats embarking on a run that has seen them lose just two of their last 11 matches in all competitions, with one of those defeats being the 2-1 reverse on Wednesday that ultimately ended in triumph.
This is no time for self-satisfaction with Sunderland still struggling in 19th position in the Premier League table, but as he casts his mind back to the acrimony of last autumn, Brown is amazed by how far he and his team-mates have come.
“Back in September, I could not have imagined this club would be going to a Wembley final, and that’s the honest truth,” said the 34-year-old centre-half. “If you’d asked back then if there was a chance of us being in a final, nobody would have said yes.
“We’ve come such a long way since then. We’ve beaten some good teams along the way as well in Southampton, Chelsea and Man United.
“We are playing very differently now, and we’re a strong bunch of lads. Hopefully, we can keep this going. It’s game on now, and we’re looking forward to the final in March.”
Brown is no stranger to success having won five Premier League titles, two FA Cups, three League Cups and two Champions League winners’ medals during his 14 years as a Manchester United player.
Since moving to Sunderland, his personal achievements have been in rather shorter supply, with a 22-month injury lay off restricting him to just 36 senior appearances in two-and-a-half seasons.
He finally returned to action in November, and has played a pivotal role in the Black Cats’ recent revival, with his central defensive partnership with John O’Shea shoring up a defence that had been leaking goals left, right and centre in the early part of the campaign.
Brown was a key performer again on Wednesday night, and after celebrating in front of a jubilant away end in the wake of the penalty drama, the former England international claimed the occasion was every bit as special as the successful nights he enjoyed at Old Trafford with Manchester United.
“The result is definitely up there with everything I achieved at United,” he said. “We went to Manchester United and got the result that we wanted, and now we’re in a final.
“When I was at United, if we had done the same thing to get to a final, the feeling would have been exactly the same. But for us to do it there was brilliant.
“We were away from home, and they were always going to put pressure on us at times. But the lads showed their spirit, and they were composed and got the job done. We have some great and talented players, and when we are playing well, you can see that on the pitch.”
Sunderland’s players experienced a wide range of emotions in the closing stages of Wednesday’s game, with the delight at David De Gea’s fumble of Phil Bardsley’s shot rapidly turning to despair as Javier Hernandez converted Adnan Januzaj’s cross in the final minute of extra-time.
The penalty shoot-out could hardly have been more topsy-turvy, with Manchester United briefly claiming the lead as Sunderland’s first two penalties were missed, only to relinquish it as Januzaj, Phil Jones and Rafael all failed to convert their spot-kicks.
“It was a crazy game in a crazy season,” said Brown. “There was only about a minute to go when they scored, and obviously it was very disappointing then.
“It was a low blow to not go through there and then, but it went to penalties and we managed to scrape through. The lads are absolutely buzzing and I hope all the supporters are too.
“It was a mad, mad ending to the game, especially when you include the penalties as well. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m in no place to have a go – I didn’t step up there and take one!”