PHIL BARDSLEY will never have a repeat of the season he has encountered on Wearside but, despite the ups and downs of the last six months, he has revealed how Sunderland is in his heart.
After watching him have such a significant part in Wednesday night’s memorable Capital One Cup semi-final success over Manchester United at Old Trafford, it is hard to believe he seemed destined to leave the Black Cats last August.
Banished to train and play with the Under-21s and then suspended by the club for mocking an opening day defeat to Fulham on a social networking site, Paolo Di Danio had decided enough was enough.
But breaking his foot in an Under-21s outing with Bolton effectively ruled out a move away from the Stadium of light before the closure of the summer transfer window at the end of August.
By the time he had recovered, Di Canio had been sacked and his replacement, Gus Poyet, recalled him despite the fans’ disapproval. Bardsley stuck to his task and has been a key component of the mini-revival under the Uruguayan.
Premier League safety may still have to be achieved in the months ahead, but Bardsley can’t quite believe he is planning for a trip to Wembley in a red and white shirt – even if it did have to come at the expense of the club he supported as a boy, Manchester United.
“It’ll take another few days for it to sink in,” said Bardsley. “I'm not sure I'll be allowed back into Salford now. But it doesn't matter. Sunderland are going to Wembley and that's all that matters to me.
“It was the sixth anniversary of me signing on Wednesday night, and I owe a massive debt of gratitude to Roy Keane for bringing me to such a fantastic football club.
“I've enjoyed every minute of it, and it's a big thanks to him for bringing me here. To take this club to Wembley and be part of such a great day out is going to be sensational.
“There were 9,000 at Old Trafford and they never cease to amaze me when they travel away. They always go in their thousands. I probably wasn't one of their most popular players six months ago, but that's football.
“I've turned that round and being part of this club going to Wembley is something special. It would be fairytale stuff to cap off the season I've had with a win at Wembley. We'll give it a right good go. We've beaten Chelsea and Man United already in this cup run and it's a dream come true. You couldn't write it, it's absolutely sensational.”
Just when it seemed Manchester United had done enough to reach the final on Wednesday night, Bardsley’s foray forward ended with him finding space on the edge of the area to take a shot on goal.
It was hardly the most dangerous of efforts and he could easily have turned away as the ball fizzed towards the hands of United’s David De Gea. Somehow the Spanish goalkeeper lost his concentration and he pushed the drive in to his own net with his palms.
Bardsley said: “Well at least I hit the target didn't I? I hit the target and he had to make a save, and he didn't make it. It was as simple as that, and it went in the back of the net. I didn't know what to do when I scored. I was absolutely out on my feet and my emotions were going through the roof. What a day.”
For those who still don’t know what happened, United incredibly attacked for one last time in the final minute and forced the game to penalties when Javier Hernandez sensationally turned in Adnan Januzaj’s cross.
Bardsley still finds it hard to explain himself. He said: “My emotions are going through the roof, and I still don't really know what to say to be honest.
“I don't know what to say about it all to be honest. It must have been some spectacle for the neutral. It was end to end all night, but I thought we deserved to win the game.
“We created a few chances, maybe not too many clear-cut ones, but we created opportunities and I thought the energy we showed in extra-time was phenomenal. The shoot out was a shambles wasn't it? I don't care. It can be as bad as anything, it doesn't matter, we're going to Wembley.”
The horrendous shoot-out did create one hero: Vito Mannone. The Italian goalkeeper, who will be rested for today’s FA Cup tie with Kidderminster when Oscar Ustari will make his debut, made the final save from Rafael to seal Sunderland’s place at Wembley.
Bardsley said: “I don't think Vito has received the plaudits he's deserved since he's been here. It was sensational goalkeeping. He's a top goalkeeper - his distribution and his shot-stopping are both superb. He's come in from a big team like Arsenal and adapted fantastically well.
“His distribution has been one of the key things of our game under the new manager. We're trying to play out from the back, and he's a big part of that. For him to save the penalties in the way that he did was sensational.”