WATCHING BRIEF: Lack of League Cup lustre jars with Sunderland's historic win (From The Advertiser Series)
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WATCHING BRIEF: Lack of League Cup lustre jars with Sunderland's historic win
IT was a night that will go down in Sunderland folklore if the job is completed in two weeks' time. But it was also a night when you couldn't help wonder what football is really about these days.
Strip away the financial figures that have completely transformed the game, the contrived controversies that dominate the back-page headlines and the billionaire owners with little or no regard to the history of the clubs they represent, and what are you left with?
Eleven players, running around on a football pitch, trying to win something. If only it was that simple.
Given that they have not played in a Wembley final for more than two decades, a Capital One Cup semi-final against Manchester United should have been the undisputed highlight of Sunderland's season so far. Especially when they eventually won it.
Instead, if not quite an irrelevance, it felt like an after-thought until Ryan Giggs' own goal set pulses racing on the stroke of half-time. And even then, things remained relatively subdued until Fabio Borini's 65th-minute penalty restored Sunderland's lead and finally resulted in bedlam in the Stadium of Light.
Where was the fevered pre-match build-up? Impossible given the League Cup semi-finals have to be crowbarred into the busiest part of the season, hot on the heels of the festive programme and FA Cup third-round day.
Where were the sold-out signs? Nowhere to be seen given that last night's attendance of 31,547 was more than 8,000 down on the crowd that watched a humdrum Premier League game with Aston Villa on New Years' Day.
And where was the spine-tingling sense of a season being defined over the course of two legs? Absent because, in the eyes of Gustavo Poyet and the rest of the Sunderland hierarchy, it is more important to claim three league points when the Black Cats visit Fulham on Saturday.
Like it or not, and even with a place in the final looming large, the League Cup no longer tops anyone's list of priorities.
There are mitigating factors of course, and they seem to grow stronger every year. For a club like Sunderland, rooted to the foot of the table and staring relegation in the face, the financial importance of remaining in the Premier League overrides all other considerations.
Poyet might have picked his strongest side, but he will take little satisfaction if Sunderland make it to Wembley and still end up playing in the Championship next season. Ellis Short, staring at a potential £60m black hole in his budget, will be even more strident in his views.
There is an excuse for the stay-away supporters too. Last night's game was one of ten home fixtures Sunderland are due to play in December and January. One of them, the FA Cup fourth-round tie against either Kidderminster or Peterborough, is yet to be finalised, but a ticket for the other nine would cost an adult £215.
Go to all the away games in December and January too, and you're looking at a bill in excess of £400. And in the majority of those matches, Sunderland's football has hardly been electrifying.
In many ways, this could be described as a game too far. Yet in so many other ways, surely it was the first of the two games that really matter?
In two decades time, how many Sunderland fans will boast about the day their club avoided relegation to set up another season of mundane Premier League matches against other mid-ranking teams?
Let's be honest, that's what we're talking about here. We're not envisaging Sunderland sealing their survival in order to compete in the Champions League in a couple of years time. Stay up this season, and maybe next year we can all dream of finishing 12th.
But a League Cup final at Wembley? Now surely that would be something to behold, something to tell the kids about? And after last night's result, it might well happen.
This is the 54th instalment of the League Cup, and in all that time, Sunderland have appeared in one final. The same is true of Newcastle.
It is a dreadful record in a region that prides itself on its footballing passion, but after last night's victory, the Black Cats are on the brink of improving it.
Lifting silverware. Creating history. Enjoying a moment that defines a club's identity. Isn't that why football continues to captivate? Let us hope that the decisive second leg at Old Trafford in a fortnight's time embraces all those things and more.
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