In the first of a brand new Cutter series Tom Walsh recalls his best football day ever. When everything poured out of everyone in a corner of Old Trafford.
The Smiths’ once famously penned the words “so for once in my life let me get what I want, Lord knows, it would be the first time”, and as a Sunderland supporter it is a statement that has resonated for generations.
Known as a perennial yo-yo club, experiencing often, and sometimes humiliating, relegations, not to mention getting a few slaps off our nearest and dearest up the road, life as a Wearsider is no picnic. There are very, very few highs and the constantly replayed footage of that FA Cup final in 1973 is something that only our dads and grandads can tell us about.
But for one freezing night in a Mancunian winter all of that was forgotten as we dared to dream, reaching our first major cup final since 1992.
For a bit of context, I was born into a Sunderland-supporting family but in the Lancashire town of Bury. Growing up I had the unfortunate pleasure of Manchester United classmates lauding it over me when they racked up their millionth title during the 1990s, not to mention the treble season which criminally overshadowed our 105-point Division 1 campaign.
Oh how they would gloat after pinging eight past Nottingham Forest or tonking Juventus, despite having never stepped inside Old Trafford or only being able to get a ticket to a testimonial match against Boca Juniors. Sunderland rarely beat United, as no-one really did during the Fergie era, but it was something I would crave relentlessly.
While Newcastle were always the default team to hate, living among this amount of United fans made me resent everything they ever did, well, bar beating Newcastle. Over the years my hate turned towards our black and white neighbours, and due to the fact that we never, ever beat United.
Flash forward to the beginning of January 2014 and beating David Moyes’ side 2-1 at the Stadium of Light in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final was met with caution by myself. While I should’ve been smug beyond belief, I knew the return leg would be coming and, in true Sunderland fashion, we’d be put firmly in our place.
How wrong I could be.
In spite of Man United doing what Man United do and charging Sunderland fans between £45 and £55 for a ticket, while the reverse fixture only cost supporters £20, just over 9,000 Mackems travelled down to Lancashire and began congregating in the Manchester staple that is Sinclair’s Oyster Bar.
Whether you are a supporter of Bayern Munich or Bristol City, any away match in Manchester needs to include a trip to this city centre heaven of a boozer. And after walking past Manchester Evening News stands which read “UNITED FANS PLEA TO MOYES: SAVE OUR SEASON”, that weird feeling of cautious optimism began to arrive.
The pub was swelling with excitement and excruciating angst. It seemed this corner of Manchester had become exclusively Sunderland. Mackem accents were found in every bar of the city with United fans looking decidedly sheepish on the Metrolink headed for Old Trafford.
The short walk in the freezing night sky towards the Theatre of Dreams and that gut punch sick feeling begins to take over, I’d forgotten we actually had to deal with at least 90 minutes of football. Team news filters through, Rooney and van Persie both not even in the squad. Oh God, could we actually win this?
Walking up the steps to the amphitheatre that awaited us, dodging the pissed-up teens chucking beer about singing about Gary Rowell, only to be hit by a wall of noise. The atmosphere was already electric and we were still ten minutes from kick off, oh aye the match. It still hadn’t sunk in.
Sunderland start well but, as expected, our bubble seems to be burst when Jonny Evans puts United 1-0 ahead. “That’s alright,” I mumble “we’ve still got ages to go”. Chances come and go, Fabio Borini fires over, Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez miss glorious opportunities but still we cling on.
Despite not feeling it at the time, the 90 minutes seem to have flown by and into extra time we go. We’re starting to believe. The ridiculously handsome Marcos Alonso screams a shot across the goal but whistles past the post. And then, good God it happened.
Phil Bardsley, a man who was ostracised by former manager and lunatic Paolo Di Canio for being pictured on the floor of a casino covered in £20 notes, a man hated by a large section of our supporters, takes aim from 18 yards. It seems a tame effort straight at David De Gea but the Spaniard, yes that one who everyone thinks is the best keeper ever, spills it.
It trickles agonisingly towards the corner of the net and kisses the white rope. We simply explode. Men almost break down weeping, my brother ends up crowdsurfing down three rows and many just stand there opened mouthed. We’ve done it, we’ve done it, we’ve…oh wait United have equalised.
The collective arse of every Sunderland supporter just fell out as Hernandez wheels away just a minute later. Penalties, fucking penalties.
I feel so sick but Craig Gardner is stepping up. “He may be shit, but he can take a penalty” I say as his shot balloons into the crowd. What followed was a hugely surreal experience where everyone seemed afraid of hitting a net. Welbeck, Fletcher, Johnson, Januzaj, Jones – all of them pitiful pens. However, Ki Sung-yueng had buried his and all was left was Rafael to send us to sudden death. We held our collective breath, well apart from me as I’d lost count, so when Vito Mannone saved it I thought we had to go again.
We didn’t. We were through. We were going to Wembley.
Everything poured out of everyone in that corner of Old Trafford. Delirium, joy, tears, sweat and complete exhaustion. And it stayed for almost an hour after the game.
As Morrissey once warbled, Sunderland had finally given me what I wanted. Even the rancid cheeseburger ate in my flat at 3am tasted like the finest gourmet cuisine around. What a day, what a night, what a result.
Follow Tom on Twitter @Walshie409