BEFORE THIS barmy season commenced, it would have been intriguing to gauge what the average football fan made of Sunderland in the six years since they returned to the Premier League.
The likely answer: “not a lot”.
Other than watching the progress of Roy Keane’s beard in those early days back in the top flight, a brief moment of captivating quality under Steve Bruce at Chelsea, and then Paolo Di Canio’s St James’s Park knee-slide last season, Sunderland have barely captured imagination on the national radar.
Certainly, it hasn’t been on the same level they managed under Peter Reid when Niall Quinn and Kevin Phillips tormented the best defences in the division.
If Sunderland had dropped out of the Premier League at a whimper – as they threatened to do earlier this season – who would have missed them outside of the North East?
Since returning to English football’s top table, Sunderland have scraped by; consistently labouring to fulfil that modest objective of establishing themselves in the top half – achieved only once after a dramatic last-day pendulum swing under Bruce.
Sunderland’s supporters have won more friends than the team itself.
This season has marked a dramatic sea-change.
After the rantings, ravings and what seemed to be the hopelessness of the Di Canio reign, the transformation under Gus Poyet has had the whiff of a fairytale around it.
What a chance there is on Sunday to secure a happy ending.
This is Sunderland’s opportunity to forge a name for themselves.
The nation will be cheering on the underdog Black Cats against money-bags Manchester City.
In an afternoon, all of Sunderland’s efforts over the last decade could be overshadowed.
That, of course, is a big “if”, particularly given the hapless nature of Sunderland’s performance against Arsenal last weekend.
And even if the Wearsiders lift their first piece of silverware since 1973, there will be no happy ending until Poyet’s men can beat the drop.
Survival trumps cup success every time for anyone employed at the Stadium of Light.
It’s understandable. For players, manager and coaching staff, they all want to test themselves at the highest level.
But, from a financial viewpoint, relegation holds catastrophic circumstances.
Despite a potential £60million over three years from parachute payments, it won’t spare Sunderland from significant blood-letting.
Office staff will be made redundant, budgets slashed and an even greater reliance placed on Ellis Short to keep the club’s head above the water.
As the 18 former Premier League clubs in the Championship could testify, falling out of the top flight sends you into a desolate wasteland.
But for supporters, finishing fourth bottom in the Premier League doesn’t particularly set pulses racing. At least once the immediate buzz wears off from survival being assured.
Cup finals are a different matter.
Ask a fan the years of Sunderland’s last three appearances in a Wembley final and they would roll off the tongue.
Ask them Sunderland’s final league positions in the years since returning to the Premier League, and there would be far more puzzled faces.
It’s a pecking order which Poyet is struggling to get his head around.
“It (the Premier League) is more important, but not up in Sunderland,” he said at Arsenal on Saturday.
“I learnt that in the last week. Apparently, for a manager, it is better to win the cup because you become more famous.”
That wasn’t a criticism from Poyet over the adoration over Bob Stokoe. It was more of a surprised observation at the enthusiasm for Wembley over the survival battle.
But when supporters know there is no prospect of Sunderland winning the title or gatecrashing the top four, the Premier League is not necessarily such a holy grail.
It’s the same for every club lying outside of the current top seven.
One Magpies fan rang up Radio Newcastle’s phone-in this week and said: “What is the point of our football club, to be ninth?”
That was why Sunderland’s followers have cast such envious eyes to the likes of Swansea, Wigan, Birmingham and even Bradford City over the last few years.
It’s one of the many reasons why there has been so much discontent on Tyneside in the last couple of months too.
While Alan Pardew claims he is “never” jealous of Sunderland, many Newcastle fans will be this weekend.
A Wembley final is something to be cherished and this is a chance to go down in Sunderland folklore.
Just ask a member of the 1973 team. Their entire lives have almost been defined by that 90 minutes.
Yes, it is imperative that Sunderland retain their top-flight status and continue to rub shoulders with the big boys.
But this is an opportunity for this club to lay down a marker and put a stamp on English football again.
That’s something they haven’t done in 41 years, however many of those have been spent in the top division.
* Football Echo Cup Final Special on sale now!