BRIAN ATKINSON was just 21 when he ran out at Wembley for Sunderland’s last appearance in a major cup final.
But as the current Darlington assistant manager told the Echo’s Chris Young, it would prove to be the high point of Atkinson’s playing career.
STEVE McManaman, Alan Shearer and David James sat alongside Brian Atkinson in the England dressing room.
As the Three Lions Under-21s prepared for their participation in the Toulon tournament in the summer of 1991, Atkinson – plus Sunderland team-mate Richard Ord – were rated among the country’s top prospects.
Twelve months later, the Darlington-born midfielder was given the stage to demonstrate his potential when he ran out with Sunderland at Wembley.
The future looked to be bright for one of several homegrown players Sunderland produced – with mixed long-term success – in the early 90s.
But it wouldn’t get any better for Atkinson.
At 21, he would experience the highlight of his career in that FA Cup final after being handed the opportunity as the regular partner of Paul Bracewell by then caretaker boss Malcolm Crosby in the run to Wembley.
Over the following three years at Roker Park, Atkinson would never again enjoy such an illustrious role - falling in and out of the side before eventually departing for Carlisle and then Darlington.
“Things happened and for me personally, it probably happened a bit early in my career,” said Atkinson, who would make a total of 119 league starts for Sunderland.
“I would have probably savoured it a bit more later on. It was one of the main highlights of my career, really.
“I’d been in and out when Denis Smith was the manager. I’d played and he’d given me my debut the season before, but I was always in and out.
“But when Malcolm got the job over Christmas, he put me straight in the team against Port Vale in the third round. I scored and I never looked back from that.
“I was in the team all the time and it finished in the cup final.
“I’ve got a lot of time for Malcolm because he always gave young lads a chance.
“I just played centrally with Paul Bracewell then and he had me running about left, right and centre. But I learned a lot from him.”
The departures of Crosby and Bracewell didn’t help, but Atkinson struggled to make the progression from promising youngster to established first-team fixture in the following seasons.
But while 1992 would prove to be the moment for Atkinson to relish, he doesn’t want to sound preachy to his successors in a red and white shirt about making the most of this weekend’s opportunity.
“Listen, they’re Premier League footballers. They don’t need me to tell them what to do,” he says.
But the 42-year-old does have an appreciation for the magnitude of the occasion in 1992 and the similar scenes which will envelop Wembley this weekend.
“These are the days which football is all about. It’s for the supporters,” said Atkinson (right), now assistant manager at Darlington, as the club attempts to navigate it’s way back up the football pyramid.
“We’re talking about a game of football which was 20-odd years ago, but people still remember the day out, the party atmosphere, getting up early and going down on the bus or train with their mates.”
It’s the reaction of those Sunderland fans which remains one of the most vivid memories of the Black Cats’ cup adventure.
Despite Crosby’s side succumbing to Liverpool in the Wembley showpiece, Sunderland’s players were still treated as heroes when they returned to Wearside for an open-top bus parade.
“I remember travelling up and everyone was a bit hungover,” he said.
“We had to get off the bus at Belmont and the scenes were unbelievable. They’ll live with you forever.
“The amount of people on the streets ... the only thing missing was the cup.
“I think it took us four hours from the outskirts of the city. There was people on the roofs. It was unreal.”
As for the game itself, the benefits of hindsight – and more specifically YouTube – have given Atkinson a more positive slant on the 2-0 defeat.
The 14th minute chance spurned by striker John Byrne remains the “what if?” moment, with Liverpool coasting to the trophy after Michael Thomas netted just two minutes into the second half.
“I coach a lot of younger kids now and one of them got the cup final up on YouTube,” he said.
“It was the first time I’d really watched it fully, and in the first half, we did quite well. We were quite unfortunate probably not to go in leading at half-time.
“Until I saw it, I didn’t realise how good the chance was which John Byrne had.
“You look back on the cup run and in all the other rounds, he’d scored. Every chance he had, he finished, apart from the final.
“Who knows, if that had gone in, it might have been a different day.”
The comparisons between that 1991-92 campaign and the current one can be drawn - a sacked manager and his successor embarking upon a cup run, while Sunderland are the firm underdogs in the final.
Yet Atkinson feels there is a far greater gulf between Manchester City and Sunderland, than between Liverpool and the Black Cats in 92 - even though there was a division between the sides then.
“I think it has moved on a bit now,” said the boyhood Sunderland fan. “You look at Man City now and they’ve got players from all over the world, who are world-class.
“I don’t think I’m being out of order in saying Liverpool didn’t at the time. They showed their class in the second half, but so they should. It was Liverpool.
“But since Poyet has come in, he’s done fantastically well.
“They’re playing a lovely brand of football and I think everyone is noticing that. They’re starting to get results now too.
“There’s nothing better than a day out at Wembley and hopefully they can come away with one better this time.”
Atkinson was speaking at the launch of Darlington’s fund-raising campaign to re-locate the club back to the town, with an agreement secured to ground-share at Darlington Rugby Ground from next season.
The Quakers, currently in the play-off spots in the Evo-Stick Northern First Division, have spent the past 18 months playing their home games in Bishop Auckland after the club’s liquidation and re-forming.
“We need to be back in the town now,” he added. “The support that we’ve had has been phenomenal for the level we’re at.
“But the quicker we get back into Darlington for financial and sponsorship reasons, the better.
“We did well last year and are doing okay again this time. At this level of football, who wouldn’t want to come to Darlington with 1,200-1,500 people coming through the gates.”