ELLIS SHORT was still pinching himself as he gazed at the 9,000 celebrating wildly inside Old Trafford before heading down to the away dressing room.
“Amazing” was the verdict of Sunderland’s American owner while he recovered from one of the most stunning conclusions to a Black Cats game in living memory.
This was the sort of evening which Short was promised when Niall Quinn persuaded him to invest in Sunderland.
Dejection, utter euphoria and dejection again before the highest of highs. It was some way for Sunderland to reach their first major cup final since 1992.
Regardless of what happens against Manchester City – who, don’t forget, have Sunderland as their bogey team – on Sunday, March 2, last night was a moment which brought back the bond between supporters and the side which Gus Poyet has managed to transform.
That relationship had been fractured at the end of the Paolo Di Canio shambles.
There was no feeling of fondness towards players who supporters perceived had let the team down again and again, and failed to achieve anything beyond teetering on the brink of the relegation zone.
But Poyet has brought back that love affair.
The likes of Adam Johnson, John O’Shea, Lee Cattermole and, particularly, Phil Bardsley have been born again under his stewardship, as Sunderland have risen up the table to the point where survival looks a genuine possibility.
And while vanquishing Newcastle for a second successive derby, back in October, injected some enthusiasm into a battered and beaten fanbase, Sunderland still required a game which would be talked about for years and years.
Last night was it.
That it went to penalties, after Sunderland’s hopes of a last-gasp winner appeared to have been immediately squashed, only added to the drama.
But Sunderland unquestionably deserved to go through. Even if the Black Cats had succumbed in one of the worst shoot-outs imaginable, they would still have done themselves proud.
Every sinew was burst to send the raucous away end home happy, with Poyet’s men wandering around on jelly legs in the second part of extra time.
Yet it wasn’t just effort that Sunderland showed. They looked the better side against a Manchester United outfit who were every bit as average as they were in the first leg.
Other than the hugely talented Adnan Januzaj, who had Marcos Alonso on toast in the opening 25 minutes, there was precious little threat from the hosts.
Danny Welbeck wandered aimlessly between the flanks, while Shinji Kagawa offered little in the number 10 role. The arrival of Juan Mata for that deficiency can’t come soon enough.
Sunderland defended solidly and played their way into the game, as United gave them time to bring the ball down and pass it around.
But Poyet’s side were undone by those familiar failings from set pieces. That’s 11 times this season that Sunderland have now conceded from deadball situations.
They had survived a warning in the opening five minutes when Vito Mannone just managed to get away Javier Hernandez’s header.
But the marking on the corner – which was wrongly awarded – that allowed Jonny Evans to level the tie was awful as the ex-Sunderland loanee completely escaped the attention of John O’Shea.
Nevertheless, even at that point, Sunderland were firmly in the tie.
David Moyes’ side didn’t appear to have the wherewithal to go for the jugular and Sunderland were the brighter side throughout the second half.
Defensively, Sunderland kept their shape and their composure, with Ki Sung-Yueng predictably providing the ice-cool presence in the middle of the park.
But for too long, Sunderland fell short in the final third as their build-up play lacked the necessary zip and United were able to deal with it comfortably.
That changed in the final 15 minutes of the second half as the Black Cats started to create – Adam Johnson and Alonso both going agonisingly close.
Poyet instructed Johnson, Fabio Borini and then Jozy Altidore to look for the gaps in behind Steven Fletcher and if any side were going to grab a dramatic last-gasp winner, it was going to be Sunderland.
As extra time began to tick down though, it looked as if Sunderland’s chance had gone.
United should have sealed it as Sunderland threw men forward, with Hernandez and Januzaj both wasting chance on the counter-attack.
But then David De Gea came up with the error of all errors.
The United keeper produced one of the saves of the season when he kept out Emanuele Giaccherini’s header in the Premier League meeting between the sides at the Stadium of Light earlier in the season.
But this was Auntie’s Sporting Bloomers stuff.
It was hard to begrudge such a moment for Bardsley though.
The full-back, who far from helped himself, went through the mire under Di Canio, yet the former Manchester United man – along with Lee Cattermole, John O’Shea and Wes Brown – is one of the leaders in the dressing room.
Good sides need characters like that.
Bardsley was the first one out of the tunnel for the warm-up and he again led them off before kick-off. As Sunderland’s longest-serving player, he knew exactly what this meant to the travelling hordes.
It was heartbreaking that the ecstasy within Sunderland’s ranks, and in the stands, turned to such utter misery within the space of a minute. It looked like a Sir Alex special in last-gasp rescue jobs as Hernandez took the tie to penalties.
Sunderland needed enormous character for the shoot-out which followed and despite being helped by some truly awful penalties from United, Mannone was the coolest man inside Old Trafford.
When Mannone arrived at the Stadium of Light, there were question marks over his pedigree after an unconvincing spell at Arsenal.
But he has been the find of a very questionable summer spending spree.
It was fitting that 1973 hero and club ambassador Jimmy Montgomery was here, sitting next to Short, as Mannone performed his heroics.
After the most infamous of starts to the season, these players have already written themselves into Sunderland’s history.
Regardless of the result at Wembley, this cup run will be cherished. Don’t forget that almost 30 years on, the 1985 Milk Cup final is still vividly remembered.
But in front of 9,000 hoarse fans, Sunderland produced one of THE great nights in their history.
Now they can dare to dream of an even more memorable one at Wembley.