“FOOTBALL eh? Bloody hell!”
Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote after Champions League victory in 1999 seemed strangely apt last night as, high in the stands, the po-faced ghost of Manchester United’s immediate past looked down on Sunderland’s stunningly dramatic cup victory.
In the shadow of the stand which carries his name and which threatens already to haunt his successors, Sunderland secured one of the great cup semi-final victories against a United side which has lost its way since the Scot handed over the reins last summer.
This was the Wearsiders’ first triumph at Old Trafford since 1968 – albeit on penalties after losing the match 2-1 after extra time – and arguably worth the wait for the red and white army because this was an event, an occasion, which will never be forgotten by a single one of the 9,000 who travelled to see such a drama unfold at the Theatre of Dreams.
Leading 2-1 on aggregate, Sunderland did well enough to win this game.
But when former Black Cats loanee Jonny Evans stooped to head United in front shortly before half-time, you doubted whether the Red Devils, who had lost only one of their 12 League Cup semi-finals at Old Trafford, would be denied.
The scores were level on aggregate and with away goals not counting until the end of extra time, Sunderland were almost at the brink of 120 minutes football, almost on the edge of extinction from the competition when Phil Bardsley powered in a shot which spun out of the gloves of David de Gea and over the line.
With seconds remaining, Sunderland, for all the world seemed to have won the match.
But this is Manchester United and, as we have learned so many times before and after 1999, last-gasp comebacks are their speciality.
Magician-of-the-match Adnan Januzaj, produced another will of the wisp moment before crossing to Hernandez, who fired high into the net from close range to send the game to penalties.
This was much more like the heartbreak Sunderland’s fans have become accustomed to at Old Trafford. But Moyes’s men are not the irresistible Ferguson force of old and they played their part in one of the poorest penalty shoot-outs you’ll ever see – 10 shots on goal, only three scored.
But Ki Sung-Yueng and Marcos Alonso notched for Sunderland and, with only Darren Fletcher replying for United, the Wearsiders were through to a Wembley final date with Manchester City.
It had been an epic night, an amazing game and one of those where you struggle at the end to remember where it began.
Gus Poyet made two changes to the Sunderland side which drew 2-2 against Southampton at the weekend, choosing to start with Steven Fletcher and Jack Colback ahead of Jozy Altidore and Seb Larsson.
It had the look of just about the strongest team Sunderland could call on, with Poyet having admitted before the start that he dreamt of Wembley just as much as the fans.
United were without world-class attackers Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie – both having failed to recover full fitness in time – while influential captain Nemanja Vidic, United’s scorer in their 2-1 Stadium of Light first-leg defeat was suspended.
With Ryan Giggs and Patrice Evra on the bench, United looked a youthful side, though still, obviously, a formidable unit.
The atmosphere at kick-off was tremendous, with Sunderland’s support outsinging the home fans.
Sunderland were clearly as pumped up as their supporters, but had to ensure they did not get carried away – Fabio Borini very lucky to escape a booking in the fifth minute after sliding into dangerman Januzaj from some distance,
That gave the United man the chance to put in a dangerous free-kick from near the right-hand corner flag which Hernandez, at the far post, nodded goalward inside the six-yard box – Vito Mannone blocking smartly on his line – the Italian starting as he meant to go on.
Sunderland immediately replied with their first attacking move, but they were guilty of over-elaboration around United’s 18-yard box before Ki swiped a low shot wide from distance.
The Black Cats’ first real attempt came in the 10th minute when Ki pumped in a deep free-kick from the left and John O’Shea nodded wide at the far post.
With more than quarter-of-an-hour gone, Sunderland were competitive – as demonstrated by Lee Cattermole’s hard but fair challenge on Hernandez which left the striker in a heap in midfield.
And in the 20th minute the visitors put together the move of the match before Borini went close – a string of close-range passes in the Black Cats’ half ending with Italian taking down Adam Johnson’s long-range ball upfield in one touch before blazing a dipping shot just over the bar from long range.
Sunderland won their first corner midway through the first half thanks to pressure from Fletcher as they continued to press.
And even though United possessed constant menace through their impressive Belgian attacker Januzaj, Poyet’s men reached the half-hour with relatively little trouble.
United had kept Johnson relatively quiet, but, in the 33rd minute, Ki found him with a fine ball and the winger advanced to the edge of United box before being brought down by Danny Wellbeck.
The free-kick came to nothing, but it suggested that this game might be about two exciting wide-men rather than one.
That thought was put to one side a minute later as Januzaj put a ball in from the right and Darren Fletcher’s strike hit the post before being cleared.
It was temporary respite though, for United won a corner seconds later and, from the ball in from the right, Welbeck swivelled on a shot to the far post and Evans, unmarked, nodded home inside the six-yard box with Borini playing him onside.
The goal stung Sunderland rather than cowing them though.
And in the minutes that followed the Black Cats went on the attack – Wes Brown heading a deep ball into the six-yard box which Alexander Buttner headed clear; the lively Borini firing a left-wing cross to the head of Steven Fletcher, which the striker was inches away from connecting with.
That must have given Sunderland some encouragement going into the second half, but they started sloppily, Ki bringing down Hernandez instantly for a free-kick which Januzaj floated over the crossbar.
Then it was Rafael’s turn to send a shot just over, after cutting inside from the right too easily in the 50th minute and attempting his shot.
There was better to come from Sunderland, though, winning two corners in quick succession – Evans putting the ball behind under pressure from Fletcher, before Ki’s teasing ball in from the right threatened danger.
Rafael conceded a free-kick in what was turning into a good spell for the visitors, Johnson firing in a 53rd-minute shot which should have been called for a corner but went for a goal-kick instead.
Januzaj looked to stem the tide with a 55th-minute shot from distance which just went the wrong side of Mannone’s left-hand post.
United boss David Moyes made the first change of the game, removing Shinji Kagawa just after the hour and looking for Antonio Valencia to add a greater attacking threat.
United improved and Borini, who had sailed close to the edge on a couple of occasions, was finally booked for a foul on Evans he could have no complaint about.
But far more important was that United and Januzaj failed to take one half-decent and one excellent chance to advance the lead in the minutes that followed.
Welbeck almost forced the ball beyond Mannone from a left-wing corner at the near post in the 70th minute.
But Sunderland stayed in it and went desperately close in the 76th minute when Borini, near United’s left-hand corner flag, pulled the ball back to man-of-the-moment Johnson, whose shot from 15 yards was blocked by Buttner.
In the 79th minute, left-back Alonso lashed a volley across the face of goal which was within a fraction of sneaking in at the far post.
And when Johnson’s shot was saved low down by David De Gea in the 80th minute, Sunderland were going into the last 10 minutes on top in the game.
Poyet brought on Craig Gardner for Cattermole in the last 10 minutes, while Moyes introduced Evra for Buttner, then Altidore came on for the bruised Borini – fresher legs as injury time beckoned.
Having been under pressure, United finished the game the stronger of the two sides and Sunderland had to resist three set-pieces – two corners and a free-kick from Januzaj in the last kick of normal time which Mannone plucked out of the air – to send the game into that last half-hour..
United started the first period much the better side and Sunderland did well not to concede before a Chris Smalling foul on Steven Fletcher, on the left of the United box, allowed Gardner a curling free-kick which drifted a yard over the crossbar.
United’s Michael Carrick had twisted an ankle seconds before and was replaced by Phil Jones as Sunderland raised their game, earning a corner before Bardsley pulled a shot wide
And then Hernandez had a wonderful chance to win the game for the hosts after Januzaj won a ball he had no right to win, in a duel with Brown, and sent the Mexican away on goal only for him to fire wide from 25 yards.
Welbeck followed that up with a shot which actually tested Mannone, but the game was end to end now with a Fletcher shot blocked over the bar and Sunderland went into the last 15 minutes of the tie knowing they were still in with a sniff of winning.
The Black Cats – heading for a cruel defeat on the away goals rule if the score stayed the same – had no option other than to go for it in the minutes remaining, Fletcher seeing a shot blocked before Januzaj wasted another opportunity on the counter-attack – firing straight at Mannone when United had numbers over.
It had been a great encounter, enhanced by Sunderland’s refusal to give it up.
It never looked as though the game would peter out, and so it proved with one of the most dramatic finishes to a cup tie, anywhere, in recent memory.
With only a minute remaining, Ki ushered the ball to Bardsley from the left and the former Manchester United defender’s powerful, low shot spun off the gloves of De Gea on goal-line for what looked a certain winner.
Sunderland fans celebrated joyously, chairman Ellis Short and legend Jimmy Montgomery hugged each other, but there were still seconds to go and, this being United, there was an incredible sting in the tale.
They launched themselves forward in one more attack and that man Januzaj scooped the ball over from the left for Hernandez to fire high into the roof of the net, and it was penalties.
The qualities of the finishes were inconsequential – although Mannone saved two – as the only thing that counted was the final result – 2-1 to Sunderland thanks to Ki and Alonso’s smart finishes.
Sunderland were going to Wembley.
And the chaotic, ecstatic, wild, deafening scenes from 9,000 Sunderland fans on the terraces left no-one in any doubt about that.
Long after the final whistle, deep inside the bowels of the stadium, you could still hear those fans chanting.
No-one could begrudge them that.
They had waited 22 years for a Wembley cup final; 46 for success at Old Trafford.