7:00am Saturday 1st March 2014
By Scott Wilson
EARLIER this week, Jack Colback disclosed the key code to some of the internal doors at Sunderland's Academy of Light training ground. In truth, the combination would not have taken much guessing.
1-9-7-3. It is a number, or more pertinently a date, that is etched in the mind of anyone of a red-and-white persuasion, no matter if they were not even born when Jimmy Montgomery performed his Wembley heroics and Ian Porterfield scored the goal that secured Sunderland their most recent cup success.
More than four decades have passed since that FA Cup win over the mighty Leeds United, but the memories remain as vivid and, if anything, the legend has only continued to grow. Pass the Bob Stokoe statue outside the Stadium of Light, or enjoy a post-match drink in the Montgomery Suite, and you are instantly reminded of Sunderland's greatest day.
Forty-one long years. Surely it is high time that a new set of heroes was crowned, and the figures 2-0-1-4 were added to a North-East timeline that features 1969 (Newcastle United), 2004 (Middlesbrough) and precious little else.
We aren't really used to success in this part of the world, but that is what makes the prospect of an historic victory even more special.
Sunderland will travel to Wembley as underdogs given that they face a Manchester City side who could easily end the season with all three domestic trophies, but that won't stop more than 30,000 Wearsiders heading to London dreaming of victory. Might tomorrow be that never-to-be-forgotten day?
If it is, then the triumph will complete one of the most remarkable turnarounds ever seen. This looked like being one of the most disastrous seasons in Sunderland's history when Gustavo Poyet was appointed as Paolo Di Canio's replacement in October.
Let's be honest, it still could be. The havoc wreaked by the calamitous Di Canio regime was so severe that relegation still remains a possibility despite a pronounced improvement under Poyet, who has restored pride and stability to a club that was rapidly becoming a laughing stock.
Yet no matter what happens in the next two-and-a-half months, tomorrow's final will mark the climax of an incredible journey and ensure that the current campaign will be remembered fondly for years to come.
Few Sunderland fans will easily forget the drama of December's extra-time win over Chelsea, in which Fabio Borini's goal at the end of normal time was matched by Ki Sung-Yueng's winner as penalties drew near.
None will need an excuse to revisit January's dramatic semi-final second leg at Old Trafford, when Sunderland scored in the 119th minute via Phil Bardsley, conceded in the 120th to Javier Hernandez, and then won a heart-stopping penalty shoot out that saw seven of the ten penalty takers fail to score.
And win, lose or draw, tomorrow will create a whole host of new memories to cherish, embellish and pass on through the generations like a torch that keeps the blaze of affection and affiliation burning bright.
Perhaps Sunderland's players will return to Wearside triumphant on Sunday evening as Capital One Cup champions. Maybe they will come up short, as their predecessors did in the Milk Cup final of 1985 or the FA Cup final of 1992.
Either way, they will make their mark in Sunderland's history. We are fortunate to be able to savour the experience with them. Let the drama begin...
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