GUSTAVO POYET has called on his players to carve out a place in Sunderland’s footballing history on Sunday, and claimed that a Capital One Cup victory will be cherished for decades no matter what happens in the final two-and-a-half months of the season.
Sunderland’s players will head to their team hotel tomorrow afternoon to fine tune their preparations for Sunday’s League Cup final with Manchester City, a game that offers an opportunity to end the club’s 40-year wait for a major trophy.
The FA Cup final success over Leeds United in 1973 is still remembered as if it was yesterday, with the Bob Stokoe statue outside the Stadium of Light providing a permanent reminder of a victory that was as unexpected as it has proved unique.
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Poyet has joked about having his own monument if things go well this weekend – “I have to say straight away, I don’t want a statue. I promise you. But if we win? Okay, I’ll take it” – and amid the mounting excitement that is whipping Wearside to fever pitch, the Uruguayan has taken time to try to assess what a cup win would mean.
With the Black Cats still struggling in the Premier League’s bottom three, it could be argued there are bigger priorities than a win at Wembley. But while other managers might decry the importance of the cup competitions, Poyet is in no doubt as to the historical significance of lifting a trophy with a club like Sunderland.
“I can feel what it means,” said the Black Cats boss. “People keep telling me in the street. I cannot believe it, but it’s true. The feeling of winning is far beyond going down, spending two years in the Championship. Why? You need to be here for 20 years and feel it like them, or not reach a final for 15 years, or not win one for more than 40.
“Only the people who have been here in the city supporting the club for so long really know. They have the feeling, not me. Me, I can say it, but I can’t feel it. But I’ve been here for four months and I have a chance now.
“You need to listen to them, and that’s why it’s an incredible opportunity. I’m not stupid enough to think it’s not important for me. It is. It’s very important for me.
“But what it can bring with it, the club winning something, is very important in terms of the future, in terms of confidence for the rest of the league, in terms of the fans, the club, the players you’re looking to bring in. What I like is to make people happy, and there is no better way than by winning a final, I can tell you that.”
Since Stokoe danced across the Wembley turf in 1973, some celebrated Sunderland managers have failed in their quest to bring further success to Wearside.
Len Ashurst came close in 1985, only for David Corner’s error and Clive Walker’s penalty miss to contribute to a 1-0 defeat to Norwich, while Malcolm Crosby was still only a caretaker when he embarked on the run to the 1992 FA Cup final that eventually saw Sunderland lose 2-0 to Liverpool in the final.
In more recent times, Peter Reid guided Sunderland to the upper echelons of the Premier League table, while Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane both lifted what is now the Championship trophy after the Black Cats dropped out of the top-flight.
Success in either the FA Cup or League Cup has remained infuriatingly elusive though, so while Poyet only took over at the Stadium of Light in October, he would still see himself elevated to the pantheon of Sunderland’s managerial greats if he was to mastermind a win over Manchester City in two days time.
“Would winning a trophy be greater than keeping the club up? Probably,” he said. “I can tell you that when I got the job and I got to the Academy of Light at a quarter to midnight, I was not even thinking about that. Not even in a million years.
“I was only thinking about staying up. That was the aim, the challenge and massive challenge that is still there. A big, big challenge. But football puts you in this situation, and you need to try to take it, for sure. You’re not going to let it go past you, so let’s see.”
Stokoe provided one of the indelible images of the 1973 final when he galloped across Wembley, raincoat flapping, holding his trilby hat in his hand.
Poyet is prone to similar outbursts of emotion himself, but insists he has not planned anything special in the event of a Sunderland victory. Instead, he will immerse himself in the occasion and see what unfolds.
“That run was impressive,” he joked. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, I can’t promise you everything! I can’t say that I’m going to be calm, but I can’t say that I’m going to jump up and down either – I don’t know what I’m going to do because I don’t plan those things.
“But those are the special moments, the moments you remember and talk about all the time. That’s why I don’t like to plan it otherwise it looks like you’re just copying someone else. Me? I’m going to be myself, and depending on how we finish the game, who knows?
“I just want to have a good day. I want to have the feeling at ten minutes before two that I personally have done everything possible to try to help the team. Then, hopefully, I’ll go and celebrate.”