Friday spotlight: Cup progress can help revive Sunderland’s spirit

In need of a morale boost - Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher suffer in Sunderland's defeat to Aston Villa in midweek
In need of a morale boost - Jozy Altidore and Steven Fletcher suffer in Sunderland's defeat to Aston Villa in midweek
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IS there ever a bad time for a good cup run?

That’s a question Sunderland fans can ponder this weekend with their club’s Premier League membership hanging by a thread and cup ties against Carlisle and Manchester United to get through in the space of 72 hours.

I say “get through”, as though it was a chore.

And yet, a generation ago, Wearside would have been alive with excitement at the prospect of two cup ties in so short a space of time.

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert, whose job and whose team became a little safer on New Year’s Day thanks to Sunderland’s poor showing at the Stadium of Light, described the FA Cup this week as a “distraction”.

Asked whether most of his fellow managers in the Premier League would prefer to avoid the prestigious competition completely, he replied: “If they were being honest, they probably would.”

This an astonishing turnaround from the early days of the game when winning the FA Cup was regarded as a more desirable and glorious achievement than winning the league.

Anyone could win the league, after all – you only had to be the best team to do that.

But to win the cup – on pitches and conditions and one-off matches, which levelled things out – ah, that took luck.

And that element of luck and chance was the essence of the challenge, of the magic of the cup.

Sunderland won the league six times before Raich Carter carried the FA Cup back to Wearside for the first time in 1937.

But when it arrived on Wearside, it was celebrated just as wildly as any title – probably even more so.

The allure of the competition continued into the 1950s, where winning the cup and the league was regarded at the time the holy grail of 20th Century football.

Len Shackleton thought it impossible when Sunderland were in with a chance of both in the 1954-55 season.

He reserved his best performances for the cup, which probably cost Sunderland the league that season, according to team-mate Stan Anderson.

He saw the cup as more important, only for his dreams to perish on a mudbath of a pitch – a semi-final that should never have been played – as Manchester City slid and slalomed their way to Wembley.

The magic of the cup remained not just a Wearside fascination, it gripped the nation long past the day when Bob Stokoe’s 1973 cup heroes touched the hearts of every football fan outside Leeds.

Its decline can probably be traced to the growth of, first, the Premier League and then the Champions League as the be-all and end-all as far as the leading clubs were concerned.

So are the cups just a distraction these days to Premier League clubs?

Wigan supporters might say “yes” after the greatest day in their history – the 1-0 win FA Cup win over Manchester City last season was followed by their instant demotion – largely due to a crazy fixture list for the Latics which arguably saved Sunderland’s bacon.

Would Wigan supporters swap that incredible day in the sun for slogging it out with the likes of Sunderland in the lower reaches of the Premier League right now?

Probably not.

But should they stay in the Championship beyond their parachute payments, those same supporters might find themselves changing their minds.

Certainly, Portsmouth fans, I’m guessing, would snatch your hands off if you offered them a Premier League return right now if they handed back their 2008 FA Cup win.

And yet it doesn’t have to be a case of either/or.

Sunderland’s 1973 cup run, for example, arguably generated the confidence and the momentum to save the Rokermen from the relegation to the Third Division they were in danger of when Stokoe arrived.

In today’s current set of circumstances, Sunderland’s management and players cannot bemoan the fact that in the next week they face two gruelling and fascinating challenges, (for the Cumbrians can be expected to battle just as hard on Sunday as Manchester United will on Tuesday).

Instead, they have to use it as an opportunity to quicken the pulses and lift the spirits of Sunderland supporters.

And those players given the opportunity to impress have to grab it with both hands after a campaign defined so far by underachievement.

The mood on Wearside is as flat and as grim as you would expect from a shocker of a league season which has sucked the soul out of so many.

But the cups offers respite from that.

Beggars can’t be choosers in this bleakest of campaigns – you have to get your good times when you can.

And as Shack found more than half a century ago, you can’t choose which competition you will do well in.

Sunderland are in the grip of a crushing fixture schedule and the cups have increased that burden.

But they also offer the only clear route to a revival of a team spirit which needs something extraordinary to coax it into flame – like a thrilling FA Cup run, or an unlikely cup victory over Manchester United.

So Sunderland must not see, or talk, about Carlisle and Manchester United as “distractions”; in the next week at least, they have to see and talk about them as the main attractions.

In truth, there may be such a thing as a bad time for a good cup run.

But for Sunderland, this isn’t it.

Twitter @sunechograeme