SO in the end, the heroes of 1973 continue to hold a unique place in Sunderland's post-war history. There will be no statue of Gustavo Poyet outside the Stadium of Light, no Borini Bar or Larsson Lounge inside it. But what a way to miss out.
“Dare to dream” was the moniker that was attached to Sunderland's remarkable Capital One Cup run, and to their credit, each and every Black Cats player dared for as long as they could. In the stands behind them, more than 40,000 supporters shared their dreams and despair.
Those supporters will be experiencing a myriad of emotions this morning, but while there will inevitably be a tinge of disappointment and a wondering about what might have been, the overriding sentiment should be pride.
Loading article content
Pride at the efforts of a group of players who gave their all, only to be undone by two moments of supreme class from Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri. Pride at a wonderful weekend that saw London become a red-and-white preserve, a Wearside enclave far away the banks of the Wear. And pride at following a football club that continues to bring meaning and identity to a community that has gone through more than its fair share of suffering in recent years.
For one glorious weekend, all of that was forgotten. For one glorious weekend, the only thing that mattered was being at Wembley, being part of something that will be remembered and spoken about for decades to come. The golden cup final weekend – even if the final result removed at least some of the shine.
For most fans, the weekend started early. Some caught an early-morning train to London on Saturday morning, others jumped in the car and headed down the M1 with their scarves trailing from the window to make their affiliations abundantly clear. Together, they helped form a Wearside diaspora that gradually turned the capital into a sea of red-and-white.
Players from the 1973 Sunderland team that beat Leeds United in the FA Cup, salute the crowd at Wembley yesterday
By 7pm on Saturday night, the size of the Sunderland support was becoming clear. Social media was engulfed with pictures of Covent Garden, bursting at the seams as fans congregated on the streets, singing their Sunderland songs and renewing acquaintances and relationships that are based on a mutual love of the Black Cats.
“I didn't know you were coming down,” said one supporter outside the Coach and Horses pub on Wellington Street, bedecked in the most extravagant of red-and-white suits. “I thought your missus had booked for you to go away on holiday.” “Aye, well she's gone.”
It was that kind of weekend. You don't wait more than two decades to watch your side appear in a Wembley final and then miss it for something as trifling as a holiday with the rest of the family.
In truth, for many fans, you got the impression this was the family holiday, an opportunity to bring the wife and kids and say to them, 'Remember this, because it might not happen again'. Let's be honest, plenty had reconciled themselves to it never happening at all.
It felt incredibly special, not only because of the sense of rarity, although that perhaps explained why so few Manchester City supporters were in evidence prior to kick-off, but also because of the sense of community that following a club like Sunderland can engender.
Fans had come from all corners of the world to be at Wembley this weekend – families reunited after decades apart, friends getting back together to toast their shared histories and dream of further memories to come.
There was an all-encompassing sense of joy, borne at least in part from not having given up during those dark days of the Third Division or on that wretched night at Bury or Southend when defeat felt like one humiliation too many. Finally, this was an opportunity to sing and celebrate with thousands of like-minded souls while the rest of London looked on with mouths aghast.
“This certainly doesn't happen every year,” said a policeman outside Covent Garden underground station. “Is there anyone left in Sunderland?” It seemed a pertinent question.
Jesus Navas, right, beats Fabio Borini to a header
And then, the night was over and the day itself had dawned. THE day. That magical day that your dad had told you would come when he first took you to Roker Park, but that you never really believed in. The day that happened to other clubs, but not to Sunderland.
The tube ride to Wembley felt more subdued than might have been expected. The effect of 30,000 hangovers? Possibly. But also a combination of nervousness, disbelief and childlike excitement.
“The next station is Wembley Park.” Cue pandemonium. As the arch came into view, so the chanting and singing began. It didn't really dissipate until Vincent Kompany clambered up the steps to lift the cup.
As kick-off approached, so it became clear that the raft of supposedly “neutral” tickets had almost exclusively fallen into Sunderland hands. How many Wearsiders were inside Wembley? Much more than the advertised 31,000 certainly. As many as 40,000? Perhaps another 10,000 again.
They roared as John O'Shea led his players on to the field, and roared even louder when their side broke away from the pre-match formalities to get ready for kick-off.
“Just get through the first ten minutes”, that was the priority. They did it. And then, they achieved so much more. Adam Johnson swept the ball to Fabio Borini, the Italian held off the attentions of Kompany, and with a swish of his right boot, the ball was in the bottom corner of the net.
For a split second, it felt like there was silence. Yet another instance of disbelief. Then, as reality set in, the noise was cacophonous and the joy unrestrained.
Sunderland were winning. At Wembley. In the cup final. Was the unthinkable going to unfold?
Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany lifts the Capital One Cup after beating the Black Cats
It looked that way for the remainder of the first half as Sunderland displayed the kind of poise and assurance that was expected of their opponents while Manchester City were gripped by defensive uncertainty and hesitation in possession.
Lee Cattermole ran midfield, harrying here, there and everywhere. Johnson and Ki Sung-Yueng passed the ball around superbly. Borini created all sorts of problems in attack.
Towards the end of the first half, the Italian was clean through on goal, only for a last-ditch tackle from Kompany to rob him of the ball. It was a crucial moment to set alongside Clive Walker's penalty miss in 1985 and John Byrne's scuffed shot in '92. In years to come, we will watch it again and wonder.
At half-time, most Sunderland fans remained in their seats as if unable to move for fear of jinxing the second half. Heads were shaking, nerves were jangling even more uncontrollably.
And then, reality intervened. Cruel, hard-hearted reality in the form of remarkable first-time strikes from Toure and Nasri that ultimately settled the game.
Sunderland went chasing for an equaliser, but their best chance disappeared when Steven Fletcher failed to get his shot away in the final minute. City swept downfield, and Jesus Navas gave the scoreline a somewhat lop-sided feel by scoring a third.
Defeat, that regular North-Eastern bedfellow, had returned once more. Yet if anything, the noise from the Sunderland fans was at its loudest once the game was up.
No one moved when the final whistle blew, and very few fans had disappeared as O'Shea began the long, lonely walk up Wembley's steps to receive his loser's medal. There was polite applause from the Sunderland end as Kompany lifted the Capital One Cup above his head, but the loudest cheers were saved for the Black Cats players, who reciprocated with applause for the fans, and for Poyet, who held out his hands as if to say, “We gave it all we could”.
A Sunderland fan sits in an empty Wembley stadium after watching his team lose
To a man, they did. Ultimately, it was insufficient, but while 2014 joins 1985 and 1992 on the list of near misses rather than 1973, which still stands alone on the calendar of Sunderland's post-war success, the long journey back to the North-East was surely made easier by the memories of a wonderful two days.
Dejected fans look on after seeing Manchester City take the lead
No trophy then, but a host of magical moments that will last a lifetime. Or at least until the next trip to Wembley, which if all goes to plan, could be within the next six weeks.