THE CHAMPIONSHIP holds fonder memories for Sunderland than it does for other sides who have plummeted out of the Premier League.
Sunderland’s quick-fire returns to the top flight under Peter Reid, Mick McCarthy and Roy Keane have ensured the club’s recent history in the second tier is cherished for promotion campaigns, rather than the financial oblivion suffered by a host of other relegated clubs.
There is a case to be made for the Championship being a far more exhilarating competition than the Premier League too – every game boasting an element of roulette and no chance of confidently predicting the top four before a ball is kicked.
But eight months after losing the Premier League’s cash-cow, just take a look at the Fulham line-up to see the effects of relegation.
In Wednesday night’s 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest, their starting XI read: Bettinelli, Grimmer, Hutchinson, Bodurov, Stafylidis, Fofana, Parker, Tunnicliffe, Kacaniklic, McCormack, Rodallega.
It’s a shell of the side which suffered the drop; spearheaded by the striker who took up £11million of the club’s opening parachute payment.
That’s the stark reality which Sunderland would face if their current slump in Premier League form materialises into anything graver.
Fulham have rallied after the hapless stewardship of Felix Magath at the start of the season threatened to send them down yet another division.
But they are still 10 points adrift of sixth-placed Watford.
They’ll have a job to get back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.
In Sunderland’s bid to avoid such a fate, tomorrow’s game may hold plenty of significance.
Sunderland desperately need to banish their home sickness after a pathetic one Stadium of Light league win all season, particularly with the visits of Burnley, QPR and West Brom forming three of the next four top-flight games.
A confident and comfortable victory – regardless of who the opposition is – would be just the ticket for Gus Poyet’s side.
The visit of the Cottagers also provides Poyet with a further opportunity to develop his new system.
Adjusting to a 3-5-2 is not a change which can be done in 90 minutes and a week on the training ground.
It will take time for the full-backs, centre-halves and central midfielders to fine-tune their positioning and decision-making.
For new signing Jermain Defoe too, this is an ideal opportunity to further knock off the rust and perhaps open his goal account in red and white.
Given the need to acclimatise to the fresh set-up, and with a seven-day gap before the crunch league clash against Burnley, Poyet will surely name a near full-strength side.
Certainly, it would be a shock to see a repeat of the six changes for the last round win over Leeds, when Sunderland were war-weary from their festive schedule.
Perhaps the likes of Vito Mannone, Sebastian Coates and Liam Bridcutt could get a run-out. But Poyet will surely name a strong side, even if opposite number Kit Symons rings the changes for a third game inside a week.
There are dangermen in Symons’ ranks – McCormack has begun to find his feet after a hat-trick against Forest, while ex-Wigan striker Hugo Rodallega – bizarrely linked to Sunderland a fortnight ago – has the pace to trouble defences on his day.
Yet while this is a tie which doesn’t massively capture the imagination, with the Stadium of Light only expected to be half-full tomorrow, this is a more than winnable opportunity for Sunderland to progress into the fifth round.
For the sake of their league form, they need to do just that.
Verdict: Home win