FOR THE 4,000 rowdy souls in the away end at the KC Stadium, the previous weekend’s Wembley magic had conjured a lifetime of memories.
Their appetites had been whetted for more.
In many minds, when news of Gus Poyet’s starting line-up filtered through, it prompted one (printable) word: “Why?”
Why would Poyet leave out Adam Johnson, Vito Mannone, Fabio Borini, Marcos Alonso and Ki Sung-Yueng when there was the chance to reach an FA Cup semi-final?
It was the understandable response and will provide an equally understandable source of criticism throughout this week.
On the flip side of the coin, Poyet had to set aside emotion – however iconic that afternoon at Wembley was – and contemplate the big picture.
Given Sunderland’s desperate need for goals in the survival battle, Steven Fletcher and Nacho Scocco both badly needed minutes on the field to unearth any sense of match sharpness.
This was an opportunity, too, to experiment with a different attacking formation, that just might have provided an answer to the bluntness which has been a characteristic of Sunderland’s performances against their bottom-half peers.
Who was right? Should Poyet have fielded his strongest side and gone hell for leather to secure a second trip to Wembley, particularly with six days of rest before Saturday’s crunch clash against Crystal Palace?
Or was Poyet correct to prioritise the Premier League and use yesterday’s quarter-final to examine the options at his disposal?
It’s a devilishly difficult balancing act. Supporters were split over the issue yesterday and they will doubtless continue the debate.
Given the magnitude of the Palace encounter, plus Fletcher and Scocco’s desperate need for minutes, it was perhaps a pragmatic decision that Poyet had to make.
But those arguing the opposite can do so with plenty of gusto.
What is beyond dispute, is that Sunderland should have performed far, far better against Steve Bruce’s side, regardless of who was or wasn’t included in the starting XI.
Sunderland’s players now know their tally of remaining fixtures stands at 12, but if they perform like yesterday in that definitive dozen, they will be heading towards the Championship.
That is perhaps unfair, given Poyet’s team selection against Palace will bear far more resemblance to the one which played so well in the Capital One Cup final.
But this was a worrying insight into the depth – or lack of it – of the squad at the Uruguayan’s disposal. While the fringe players got Sunderland into the quarter-final by successfully beating Southampton, consistency is always the watch-word at this level.
It was also alarming to see that Sunderland’s trait of self-inflicted wounds shows no signs of stopping.
In all three games against Hull this season, Bruce’s men have simply been well-organised, committed and defensively solid. That’s it. But it’s been enough, with Sunderland intent on ruining their own prospects.
Sendings off in each of the Premier League encounters were followed yesterday by a pathetically soft goal from a set piece – as Curtis Davies got above opposing centre-back John O’Shea almost in slow motion – followed by a couple of errors from Lee Cattermole; the second of which was a spine-tingler.
To concede three times in such basic fashion in the space of nine minutes left Sunderland exiting the competition with a whimper.
But it wasn’t just the manner of the goals.
Throughout, it was a very untypical Poyet performance – possession squandered cheaply time and again, and aimless long balls hoofed forward.
The formation didn’t work either after Poyet attempted to use Emanuele Giaccherini in the hole behind a two-man strike force of Scocco and Fletcher.
Neither Scocco nor Giaccherini displayed the creativity which they are in the side for and Fletcher was subsequently starved of any hint of service.
Scocco, in particular, looked way off the pace – producing an awful first touch to Andrea Dossena’s low cross in the first half and then delivering a simple square ball straight to David Meyler after the break.
If Borini is to be restored to a central role against Palace, then there was little solution to who will fill the on-loan Liverpool man’s regular spot on the left flank.
Playing that narrow formation required the full-backs to offer the necessary width too and Dossena, particularly, proved incapable of producing any quality deliver.
The Italian struggled with getting up and down the pitch, and, as in last month’s Stadium of Light clash, Hull’s joy stemmed from their right-hand side.
Despite never being spectacular and being equally scruffy as Sunderland at the start of the second half, Bruce’s side boasted the greater hunger, epitomised by ex-Black Cat Meyler, who was the driving force from the middle of the park.
Meyler displayed an unpleasant side when he cajoled referee Craig Pawson – not Poyet’s favourite official anyway from his Brighton days – into issuing a yellow card to Cattermole.
It was desperately weak-minded refereeing.
But it fulfilled Hull’s clear pre-match objective of winding up Cattermole to get the Teessider into the book – Ahmed Elmohamady earlier earning an ear-bashing from the midfielder when he went down easily under pressure just outside the area.
Ultimately, it was a ploy that worked.
Cattermole didn’t dare go in full-blooded to a 50-50 ball with Meyler after the break for fear of receiving a second booking and the Republic of Ireland international raced through to net the killer second.
Having opposition sides targeting him is something Cattermole will have to live with for the rest of his career, let alone the remainder of the campaign.
That pre-conceived opinion of Cattermole among referees is nothing new for Poyet though, and the former captain’s spirit saw him spared of criticism from the head coach in his post-match assessment.
But there were plenty of other lessons for Poyet:
H Wes Brown – missing with a minor calf strain yet expected to return against Palace – and Alonso are pivotal ingredients in Sunderland’s defence.
H A 4-3-1-2 system is not necessarily worth persisting with as an experiment.
H And Borini and Johnson are Sunderland’s are top two scorers for a reason.
If those home truths – coupled with a breather for their key players – make a contribution towards Sunderland staying up, then Poyet’s team selection was well worth it.
But that was little consolation for travelling supporters who watched their opposite numbers in the home end charge onto the pitch in ecstasy at the full-time whistle before experiencing even more joy when the cup draw was made.
That is just something Poyet will have to live with.