ALMOST a year ago to the day, Phil Bardsley took a pew at the dinner table for Sunderland’s pre-match get-together.
Prior to the Capital One Cup third round clash against Peterborough, one of caretaker manager Kevin Ball’s first moves before his opening game at the helm, was to end Bardsley’s exodus and include him in proceedings, albeit it would be several weeks before he was fully fit.
It was a risk from Ball.
Bardsley was public enemy number one at the time after his casino celebrations at the end of the previous season was followed by a daft pop at Sunderland’s opening day defeat on social media, when he let his frustration with Paolo Di Canio get the better of him.
But Ball realised that if Sunderland were to have any chance of rescuing a desperate situation, they would need characters such as Bardsley and Lee Cattermole back on board.
The return of the duo injected a sense of togetherness back into Sunderland’s camp and that win over Peterborough was the first small step on the road back to redemption.
As Bardsley returns to Wearside with Stoke tonight at the same stage of this year’s competition, Sunderland could do with a similar spark to ignite things.
The League Cup last season proved to be the catalyst for an upturn in Sunderland’s fortunes in the Premier League.
Lightning needs to strike twice.
This is a pivotal fortnight in Sunderland’s season.
Gus Poyet’s men desperately need to break their Premier League duck in the visits of Swansea and again of Stoke, prior to the international break.
A failure to secure that first top flight win of the campaign in either of those two encounters will leave Sunderland prematurely feeling hot under the collar.
Tonight is the perfect opportunity for Poyet to experiment and find the attacking combination for those league games which will see some fluency injected into Sunderland’s hitherto stodgy play in the final third.
Will Buckley, Jordi Gomez and probably Ricky Alvarez – presuming he shakes off the knock which saw him miss Saturday’s dire stalemate at Burnley – should all feature, while Jozy Altidore could get a run-out up front.
All will know that this is no meaningless cup tie.
Lee Cattermole-aside, no member of Sunderland’s midfield or attack can claim to be inked onto the team sheet. Places are very much up for grabs.
It’s a similar situation for Billy Jones.
The summer signing will be one of several changes at the back, with Costel Pantilimon and Sebastian Coates also expected to feature.
But Jones has a genuine chance of making his first league start for Sunderland against Swansea on Saturday.
Santiago Vergini doesn’t have the same natural attacking threat as Jones and that has perhaps been a missing element for Sunderland so far this season.
In a one striker system, the full-backs are crucial in getting forwards and providing the width, to allow the inside forwards licence to drift inside. Ironically, if there was a game where Vergini would be ideal, then this is it, against the height in the Potters’ ranks.
But at the moment, the sight of some offensive potency is far more important than defensive solidity.
Stoke boss Mark Hughes will surely make changes himself, and like Poyet, will sense an opportunity in the League Cup with six Premier League sides already out of the competition and at least another five to follow this week.
But Sunderland have learned the benefits of the League Cup. They need to see some more tonight. Verdict: Home win