Watching brief: Sunderland are going to Wembley after a dramatic night at the Theatre of Dreams (From The Advertiser Series)
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Watching brief: Sunderland are going to Wembley after a dramatic night at the Theatre of Dreams
THEY came in their thousands. From Roker to Ryhope and Seaham to Sacriston, the fleet of red and white shirts and Sunderland crests, descended on Manchester all dreaming of a cup final.
And by the time the 130 coaches and many more cars all returned back across the Pennines, the largest travelling support in English domestic football this season sang 'we're on our to Wembley' in March.
After singing constantly for an entire 120 minutes of tense football, the night got the perfect ending for the 9,000 away fans after the most dramatic of finishes to a Capital One Cup semi-final which ended in a penalty triumph.
With 1973 FA Cup hero Jimmy Montgomery sat alongside the club's joyous owner Ellis Short in the stands, it was fitting that goalkeeper Vito Mannone was the hero with the decisive save to deny Rafael.
Along with the cheers which bellowed around Old Trafford for long after the final whistle, there were plenty of tears. Tears of joy, with the strong band from Wearside knowing their beloved Sunderland's 22-year wait for a major cup final appearance has reached an end.
With Gus Poyet, the club's well-liked head coach, joining in the celebrations, this will be a night he will never forget, nor will the entire Mackem nation.
Sunderland looked to have done the job inside 120 minutes when David De Gea spilled Phil Bardsley's hopeful drive over his own line. Yet somehow, in incredible scenes, United forced the game to penalties when Javier Hernandez went down the other end and tied things up with the last kick.
At that time there must have been many away fans thinking another opportunity to claim a major piece of silverware for the first time since 1973 had gone again. Not so.
Sunderland regrouped, despite a few poor penalties, and made the most of Manchester United's own errors from the spot – and the big day out had the perfect ending.
The top tier of the East Stand was taken completely over by Sunderland fans. Alongside the giant 'Giggs – Tearing Us Apart' and 'Manchester is heaven' banners there were a number of SAFC crested intruders competing for space.
From the moment Mannone ran out for his early pre-match warm-up the noise from the Wearside voices could be heard. They got louder and louder and louder with every seat that was filled and kick-off drew nearer.
It seemed every Sunderland fan was in full voice, all hoping to witness the misery for David Moyes increase and a first appearance at the new Wembley sealed after years of waiting.
And who can blame them? Suddenly, despite such a depressing start to the Premier League season, Poyet had directed the squad he had inherited from the disastrous reigns of Paolo Di Canio and Roberto De Fanti to the brink of something special.
The victories in previous rounds over MK Dons and Peterborough United laid the foundations, but it was the home successes over Southampton and Chelsea which paved the way for the meeting with Manchester United.
It might not be the United football fans from around the world have come to expect, but the test was still a significant one for any top-flight team to overcome over two legs.
And with the baby-faced Adnan Januzaj running the show like a seasoned Old Trafford pro with his twists and turns in the first half, Sunderland were soon aware of the importance of the Capital One Cup to a post-Sir Alex Ferguson United this season.
Inside the first six minutes Mannone had to be alert to deny Hernandez with a fine stop as the reigning Premier League champions set the tone from the first whistle.
Yet Sunderland's character and desire meant the early threats were stifled. Every time a red shirt had the ball, a yellow one chased him down. Sunderland could even have extended their aggregate advantage had Fabio Borini's distance drive flew under rather than just over De Gea's crossbar.
But from a Januzaj corner, which should not have been given because Shinji Kagawa got the last touch, Danny Welbeck flicked in to the path of Evans to nod over the line unmarked at the back post.
The sight of John O'Shea playing Evans onside was the only telling error made by a Sunderland player and it looked to have been a decisive one for so long.
Yet the backing from the huge numbers of Sunderland fans kept believing ...
This might not be a pool of players Poyet would have put together had he been in charge last summer, but this was further proof that he has galvanised a crop shorn of self-belief not too long ago.
What they lacked was a bit of craft and guile in the final third, so often displayed by the energetic Januzaj at the opposite end.
Had Sunderland found that, they would have been planning for a trip to Wembley earlier. As it turned out, it did not matter. They are going any way … bring on Manchester City. At Wembley.