Some major changes are possible as Gustavo Poyet ponders his team selection for Sunderland’s Capital One Cup final with Manchester City. However, as Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson discovered when he spoke to Gary Bennett, the club’s Wembley history offers a warning about being too experimental
WHEN Gustavo Poyet left the Emirates Stadium on Saturday evening, talk of change was hanging heavy in the air. Sunderland had just been comprehensively ripped apart by Arsenal, and their manager’s Capital One Cup final plans were well and truly out of the window.
Time to rip up the Wembley blueprint and start with a completely blank sheet? “If there is one player starting next week, it is Lee Cattermole,” said Poyet. “The rest at the moment are substitutes.”
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It remains to be seen whether the Uruguayan carries through his threat to make radical changes for Sunday’s final, but history counsels against the move.
CHANGES: Sunderland manager Len Ashurst
Back in 1985, Sunderland were preparing for the Milk Cup final and inhabiting a similar league position to the one in which they find themselves now. Four of their previous five league matches had failed to bring a victory, and skipper Shaun Elliott’s untimely suspension meant manager Len Ashurst was forced into a selection rethink in the days preceding the Wembley date with Norwich City.
His response? A radical tactical alteration that saw Sunderland switch to a three-man central defensive formation that had barely been trialled in training. Howard Gayle and Colin West were surprisingly omitted from the starting XI, with the subsequent 1-0 defeat suggesting that the last-minute reshuffle was anything but a success.
“There were a few things around that game that were disappointing,” said Gary Bennett, who was one of the central defenders to line up against the Canaries, and who will be back at Wembley on Sunday in his role as a co-commentator on BBC Newcastle. “We had a bit of a different formation because Shaun was missing. Barry Venison skippered the side and we went to three central defenders.
“It was me, Gordon Chisholm and David Corner, and Colin West was left out. It was something new, and obviously it didn’t work on the day.
“All of a sudden, we were going to Wembley and playing with three central defenders. It took something away from us having three central defenders because we were used to playing 4-4-2.
“Howard Gayle, who had done really well in the run up to the final, was on the bench, which was unfortunate because he was a good player and he offered us a lot.”
No one is expecting Poyet to make such a radical switch this time around, but there are a number of key areas where the Uruguayan finds himself with something of a selection dilemma.
The defence pretty much picks itself with Wes Brown returning, but Jack Colback, Ki Sung-Yueng and Seb Larsson are battling for two central midfield slots, Emmanuele Giaccherini will hope to dislodge either Adam Johnson or Fabio Borini from the flanks, and a fit-again Steven Fletcher is making a late push to start up front in place of Jozy Altidore. A change of formation could even see both Fletcher and Altidore miss out, with Borini starting as the central striker.
All issues for Poyet to ponder in the next few days, but after suffering from Ashurst’s ill-fated ‘Eureka’ moment in the run up to the 1985 final, Bennett does not expect the current Black Cats boss to be as impulsive as his own manager was almost three decades ago.
“We’re talking about changes after Arsenal, but I think he still knows seven or eight or even nine who will play at Wembley,” said the former defender, who was the only member of the 1985 team to also play in the 1992 FA Cup final against Liverpool. “He won’t change it that much, and he’s right not to.
“Maybe Saturday was not a bad thing? Maybe they have got the bad game out of their system? If there was going to be an off day, maybe it is no bad thing that they’ve got it out of the way the week before Wembley rather than the week of the game.”
Sunderland’s performance against Norwich in 1985 was not really an “off day”, they simply passed up their best chance of an equaliser from the penalty spot after falling behind to a Canaries side who were equally as out-of-form in the bottom half of the table.
Behind the scenes, however, the build up to the Wembley date had been chaotic, with disputes over bonuses and sponsorship deals removing a great deal of the joy that should have accompanied an appearance in a major final.
“A lot of things were going on,” said Bennett. “There was an issue with ticket allocations, we were arguing about bonuses and there was the boot deal as well.
“The club had a boot deal with Nike, but some of the players were with Puma or Adidas and the word was that if we didn’t wear the Nike boots, we wouldn’t play. We reached a compromise, but it was unsettling – hardly the perfect preparation.”
This time around, the biggest pre-match problem is posed by the quality of a Manchester City side who might not be at the very peak of their form, but who can still call upon the most potent attacking and midfield unit in the country.
With the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany in the opposition ranks, Sunderland are clearly going to have their work cut out as they look to secure a first major trophy since 1973.
But as Wigan proved when they upset Manchester City in last year’s FA Cup final, a big game at Wembley can sometimes result in some strange things.
“We’ve definitely got a chance, although realistically, City will have to be below their best,” said Bennett. “We’ll have to play well, and a bit of luck would come in handy too.
“It’s all about taking those chances when they come your way. Back in 1985, Clive Walker missed a penalty, and in the FA Cup final, we matched Liverpool early on and had the better first-half chances, but John Byrne, who’d scored in every round, couldn’t take them.
“For Sunderland to beat City this time, it’ll be a case of being rock solid at the back and clinical up front. City are oozing quality, but don’t rule out Sunderland producing a famous upset.”