ON a day when Sunderland announced they had sold out their 31,000 ticket allocation for the Capital One Cup final, there was little evidence of Wembley fever on Wearside.
Little more than half that number turned up to watch what was, on the face of it, an attractive FA Cup fixture with a place in the last eight at the end of it.
There were many mitigating factors of course – the fact that the game was being televised, this was Sunderland’s EIGHTH home game already of 2014 and many fans were skint after forking out for those tickets, being chief among them.
But you could not help feel that those 16,000 die-hard Sunderland fans who turned up deserve to be first in line when it comes to any further Wembley tickets.
And, thanks to an impressively solid performance capped by a goal to remember from Craig Gardner, the odds on another date at the national stadium this season narrowed considerably.
In fact, with the Black Cats drawing either Brighton or Hull now in the quarter-finals, the odds shortened on an amazing Wembley treble, with the semi-finals and finals this year both being played at the showpiece ground.
All this was down to Sunderland disposing, on Saturday, of opponents who had the look of genuine dark horses for the trophy itself.
Much-admired Southampton arrived on Wearside having not lost a game since New Year’s Day.
The Premier League’s eighth-placed side had taken Hull City apart so clinically at the KC Stadium five days previously that even Gus Poyet had hailed the Saints as an example of something for Sunderland to aspire to.
With Southampton having little more to play for than the FA Cup this season, Poyet expected his opposite number to name his strongest possible side at the Stadium of Light, so it was a major surprise when manager Mauricio Pochettino made six changes, including dropping leading scorer Jay Rodriguez to the bench.
Perhaps Pochettino thought that, with Sunderland making so many changes as well, his own side would have enough quality to see the game through.
Poyet made NINE changes to the team which lost to Hull last weekend, with only John O’Shea and Fabio Borini remaining from that starting XI.
But while Southampton’s changes weakened the team, Sunderland’s only boosted the home team’s efforts.
Pochettino was giving chances to players who were on the fringes for a reason; Poyet was offering opportunities for many players who felt they had a point to prove.
Gardner, Seb Larsson and Lee Cattermole have all faded out of the regular starting line-up and knew this was a stage on which to make their case, while even Pochettino would have been impressed with the efforts of a trio of his countrymen Oscar Ustari, Santiago Vergini and Ignacio Scocco – on the day.
Scocco was making his debut and showed enough, with nimble footwork, intelligent running and positioning, that he is going to be an asset to the club.
But it was Fabio Borini who caught the eye first, the Italian just unable to swivel fast enough on a ball into the 18-yard box from Andrea Dossena which looked as though it would give Sunderland a dream first-minute start.
Borini was to flourish in a more attacking position, playing off Scocco on the right, with the lively Emanuele Giaccherini on the Argentine’s left.
The on-loan Liverpool man was just as impressive as part of a front two later in the game and, if nothing else, Poyet will have been encouraged by the emerging attacking options at his disposal.
Sunderland dominated the opening stages with some lovely approach work, but they were unable to trouble ex-Black Cats goalkeeper, 37-year-old Kelvin Davis and when a great goalscoring opportunity was created, it was at the other end of the pitch.
Adam Lallana gained ground down Sunderland’s left in the 12th minute and his cross to the far post was headed back across goal by Rickie Lambert, only for James Ward-Prowse to fail to get great contact on a shot from 15 yards out.
The ball flashed into turf and up, but Ustari made the first of one of several assured stops and the best chance of the first half for either side had gone begging.
Sunderland had clear claims for a penalty ignored by referee Mike Dean and his near-side linesman when Borini was shoved from behind by Luke Shaw just inside the area on the quarter-hour.
And, in the 20th minute, Giaccherini threatened to open the scoring with a moment of brilliance, wafting in from the left, only to cut inside one time too many and run into Gardner.
That was a frustrating moment for the Sunderland pair and the home fans and it pretty much summed up a first half in which the Black Cats played some fine football without clearly threatening, while Southampton flickered occasionally.
At the heart of all things good for Sunderland was Cattermole, like Larsson, making his 100th appearance for the club, and the Teessider continually closed down, harried, won tackles and passed intelligently both long and short.
It was a good performance all round from a much-changed Sunderland side who contained Southampton as an attacking force while continually probing away in attack.
All the display lacked was a goal, but it duly came in the 49th minute when Southampton failed to clear their lines and Gardner, on the right of goal, stepped inside a weak challenge from Victor Wanyama.
Taking an instant to set himself after the Kenyan lunged past him, Gardner struck a right-foot volley from 22 yards which left Davis with no chance as it crashed spectacularly off his crossbar and into the back of the net.
It was the midfielder’s third goal of the season, and his best.
Southampton struggled to really respond.
Steven Davis had sent a long-range shot narrowly wide of Ustari’s left-hand post in the 57th minute, before Gardner was desperately unlucky not to get on the end of a Larsson cross.
Just after the hour, Pochettino finally acted, bringing on Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez for Guly Do Prado and Ward-Prowse.
Sunderland retained the upper hand, though, before Scocco left the field to an ovation in the 68th minute, to be replaced by Connor Wickham, who immediately began to put himself about.
The game opened up in the last quarter hour as Southampton pushed for the equaliser and Sunderland refused to go into their shells – Larsson blasting straight at Davis in the 75th minute.
Marcus Alonso replaced Dossena but found himself under immediate pressure from right-back Nathaniel Clyne, who twice went past him.
In the 80th minute, Lallana just failed to turn in the defender’s cross at the near post and, a minute later, Lambert contrived one of the misses of the season from the same supplier.
From little more than three yards out, the striker somehow scooped Clyne’s pacy, low cross over the bar and with it went the Saints’ hopes.
Sunderland finished the stronger side.
Wickham might have doubled the lead in the 85th minute, but, after great approach work down the left, his resulting low shot drifted wide of the far post with the better positioned Borini, unmarked, screaming for a pass.
The Italian was to have his chance a couple of minutes later when substitute Jack Colback found Borini’s run into the box with the perfect pass, but the low shot was blocked by Davis, diving to his right, for what was the save of the match.
Finally, Borini advanced and, showing he’s not one to hold a grudge, played in Wickham, only for the big striker’s shot also to be blocked.
It did not matter in the end, Sunderland had protected their 1-0 lead to earn themselves a place in the last eight of the FA Cup in what is proving to be a remarkable season.
Wearside is currently floating higher and higher on a cup bubble and no-one can blame long-suffering Sunderland fans for daring to dream on multiple fronts.
But Gus Poyet is aware that that bubble could easily be burst if league progress is not maintained, and he had a sobering warning to make ahead of this Saturday’s trip to resurgent Arsenal.
“We are still thinking we have time when the reality is we do not,” he said.
“We have to maybe put in the minds of the players the idea that the league games are now cup ties too.
“All our Premier League games are now cup ties.”