WHATEVER happens this season, Sunderland will always have Wembley.
That’s a thought for every Black Cats supporter to wrap around themselves like a big, thick, warm 1970s football scarf as the Capital One Cup final day approaches.
Of course in terms of revenue, the Capital One Cup final is almost inconsequential.
The prize money is £100,000 to the winning club, or roughly what Wayne Rooney will earn between Monday and Wednesday under the terms of his new Manchester United contract.
It pales in comparison to the £2m on offer for the FA Cup final winners – a prize of course which Sunderland cannot yet be ruled out of – and utterly dwarfed by the £60m plus that Gus Poyet’s men will still receive even if they finish bottom of the Premier League come May.
That £60m is enough to give even a billionaire a sleepless night or two and staying on the gravy train of the world’s richest league remains the club’s overwhelming priority this season.
But the Black Cats are not the first team to go into a Capital One Cup final with their Premier League fate still uncertain and they won’t be the last.
That battle is for another day.
And those fears, however real, however powerful, can be set aside for one day at the start of March when the races for promotion and the battles against relegation take pause as football turns its eyes to Wembley to see the fate of the first piece of domestic silverware sealed.
And the League Cup final - whatever the transient name of its sponsors - remains a prize and a prize worth winning.
It is understandable that the arrival of the Champions League and the enrichment of the Premier League has marginalised the competition.
But it is still Wembley, it is still a big day in the national football calendar and still a cup final.
More than that - money can’t buy it.
There are much richer teams than Sunderland but they won’t be there - not Chelsea, not Liverpool, not Arsenal, only City of the many teams currently above Sunderland in the league.
Even Wayne Rooney, for all his wealth, cannot buy a place in this year’s League Cup final.
That’s why it’s called the glory game - the two teams who walk out at Wembley on Sunday, March 2, are walking out to decide the final entry in the League Cup record book of the 2013-14 campaign.
And for Sunderland fans, there is the joy that one of those teams that will walk out in front of the tens of thousands at Wembley and the millions watching beyond, will be dressed in the red and white of their club.
This is what the joint efforts of Paolo Di Canio, Kevin Ball and Gus Poyet have brought us to this season - Di Canio in that opening win over the MK Dons back in August, when the Black Cats came so close to crashing out at the first hurdle, Ball with the victory against Peterborough and Poyet with the subsequent triumphs over Southampton, Chelsea and of course Manchester United.
On the quiet, it has been a long road to Wembley in the Capital One Cup this season and journey’s end should be savoured.
So enjoy the excitement as the weekend approaches, enjoy the journey down there however it’s made - by car, bus, train or plane.
Enjoy the companionship of friends, family, fellow supporters, rival supporters and of strangers.
Enjoy London. Enjoy the bars, enjoy the restaurants, enjoy the nightlife - Trafalgar Square if you must.
And on the day enjoy the butterflies in your stomach from first light, to the approach to the stadium, to the teams on the pitch, to that first whistle.
Enjoy your sarnies, if you’ve packed them.
Try to enjoy your expensive stadium refreshments if you sample them.
Make the most of your cheesy chips on Wembley Way.
Above all, try to enjoy the game.
Manchester City are the firm, firm favourites and favourites usually win in football.
But if this turns out to be a re-run of Sunderland’s last cup final - the 1992 fairly routine victory to a still dominant Liverpool side - try to avoid the flatness felt by so many on that day after the game.
Remember, as the final Football Echo paper reminded us in December: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Only two teams have the honour of contesting the League Cup final and this season Sunderland are one of them. Every club, outside perhaps the Champions League places, will feel a twinge of envy on the day.
Every fan of the 90 other clubs who started the competition, would love to have had the same moment in the sun - because it’s always a sunny day at Wembley, even if it rains.
This being football though, there’s always the chance that the underdog will have its day.
Sunderland fans who were there on that drizzly afternoon long ago, and who recall the toppling of mighty Leeds United in 1973, know that more than anyone.
And as one member of Sunderland’s squad so rightly put it as they contemplated the game against City earlier this month, bigger teams do lose to smaller teams: it happens.
The bigger the opposition, the greater the victory.
And if Gus Poyet’s men can pull off the most unlikely of turnarounds this season and lift silverware for the first time since Kerr and Montgomery, the Black Cats of today will finally have something to stand comparison with the tale still talked about down the decades.
That’s another thought worth wrapping yourself in as you reflect that a season which began in such misery might end with such unexpected joy.
So it’s right that Sunderland fans should dare to dream as cup final day approaches for their side.
Dream all the way to kick-off and hopefully be in dreamland by the game’s conclusion.
It is the Wembley way.
It is the Wembley dream.
* A VERSION of this comment appears in the Echo’s Capital One Cup supplement which is available now