Scott Wilson Column: What Sunderland supporters are thinking as Sunday's Wembley date draws near (From The Advertiser Series)
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Scott Wilson Column: What Sunderland supporters are thinking as Sunday's Wembley date draws near
TWO days to go, and the mindset of Sunderland supporters appears to be fixed.
Thirty per cent of their thought process is saying, 'I still can't believe this is happening'. It has been 22 long years since Sunderland last graced the turf in a Wembley final, and plenty had given up hope of it ever happening again.
There certainly appeared to be little chance of the wait coming to an end in the early weeks of the season, when the Black Cats' failings on the pitch were only surpassed by the extent of their implosion off it.
Paolo Di Canio bequeathed a legacy of acrimony and chaos, yet in little more than four months, Gustavo Poyet has pieced things back together and guided Sunderland to the brink of their greatest achievement for four decades. Disbelief is a logical sensation, but this is really going to happen.
The next ten per cent of a supporter's thinking effectively equates to, 'Let me just check where that ticket is one more time'. It's related to the previous 30 per cent, reflecting both the rarity of the occasion and the mad scramble for tickets that has been the major source of Wearside conversation ever since Vito Mannone performed his penalty-saving heroics at Old Trafford.
If you've Emailed me in the last couple of weeks asking for help in securing a ticket, sorry I haven't been able to help you. And I suspect that goes for every former player, manager, cleaner and programme seller in a 200-mile radius of the Stadium of Light.
If you haven't got a ticket by now, the game is probably up. And if you are one of the lucky 30,000, there's no need to check on its whereabouts every five minutes. Having said that mind, excuse me while I just check that press pass has been validated again...
Once the ticket is accounted for, the next 30 per cent of the thought stream takes over. 'What if this gets really embarrassing?'
Of all the pre-cup final sentiments, it's the easiest to compute because, let's be honest, we think it every week. Whatever North-East team we follow, failure is an almost constant companion. It's just the extent of the failure that's a worry, and the potential embarrassment of having to endure it on the grandest stage.
Why did it have to be Manchester City? Couldn't it have been Manchester United in the final instead of the semi with all of their seemingly endless unravelling? Wouldn't Chelsea have been better given their grinding functionalism and refusal to trash teams by too many goals? Or even Arsenal given their tendency to fall at the final hurdle?
No, Manchester City provide the perfect storm of flamboyant attacking football, players bursting with natural talent and a proven track record for scoring five, six and seven. Once they get going, they're not going to stop. And they've even got Sergio Aguero coming back from injury to wreak further havoc. Can't we just get to 4pm now and all head back to Baker Street for a drink?
It's a tempting thought, but just as you begin to think it, the final 30 per cent of the pre-match brain process takes over. 'Christ, what if we actually win this thing?'
Now this is by far the most unsettling mental question. Win something? Sunderland? Or any North-East team for that matter.
We don't win things here. We do glorious failure, or sometimes completely inglorious capitulation. We do last-minute concessions, goalkeeping blunders, shots going awry and mistimed tackles to concede a penalty.
All of that, we can live with. Similarly, if John O'Shea is heading up those steps first on Sunday afternoon to collect a loser's medal, we'll shrug our shoulders and say, 'Still, it's been a canny day out'.
But what about if the unthinkable happens and Sunderland win? Maybe even do it with a bit of style and panache? Maybe even produce one of the great Wembley performances and contribute to a final that will be remembered fondly up and down the country for years to come?
Stop. We're all getting ahead of ourselves here. But is the prospect of winning really so outlandish and bizarre? After all, Sunderland have already beaten Manchester City once this season, just as they did last season and the season before that.
Last May, Manchester City travelled to Wembley as even stronger favourites in the FA Cup final, only to freeze as they suffered a 1-0 defeat to a Wigan Athletic side who would be relegated weeks later.
These things happen. Not very often to Sunderland, admittedly, but after a season that has had just about everything else, might a League Cup victory not actually be a logical next step? At a club where ketchup and mayonnaise were recently banned, and laughing on an exercise bike was deemed a cardinal sin, would ending a 41-year trophy drought not be deemed routine?
It's a thrilling thought, even if reality quickly returns to trample it into the ground. It's there in the back of the mind though, and that's the enduring beauty of being a football fan.
Hope will never be extinguished, even if to succumb to its temptations feels somehow illicit. We know we shouldn't really do it, and we know it'll almost certainly end in tears. But let's all head to Wembley and believe. We can worry about how to make sense of it all on Monday morning.
CHAMP OF THE WEEK
The veteran goalkeeper signed off at Middlesbrough in the way he knows best - with another clean sheet. His 16 matches as a Boro player featured ten shut-outs, and while his permanent employers at Aston Villa might not recognise it, he remains one of the best in the business.
CHUMP OF THE WEEK
At some point soon, the Manchester United manager is surely going to run out of excuses. Following Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be a tough task, but did anyone really believe it would be as hard as Moyes is making it appear? Tuesday's 2-0 defeat to Olympiacos was desperately poor.
PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK
ENGLAND vs IRELAND
The best game of the Six Nations so far featured two sides who can justifiably expect to be genuine contenders at next year's Rugby World Cup. England came out on top though, and the manner in which Stuart Lancaster's side refused to panic after falling behind in the second half said much about their confidence and composure.
BET OF THE WEEKEND
Finally, a return to winning ways as Irving romped to victory at Kempton to burst to the head of the market for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. Tipped up at 11-8, but eventually going off at odds on, Paul Nicholls' novice looks a genuine star. Follow @scottwilsonecho on Twitter for this weekend's tip. Running total: £7.38
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