TWELVE months ago this weekend, Wearside partied, prayed and proudly pontificated over Sunderland’s efforts at Wembley.
The Capital One Cup final remains firmly etched in Sunderland folklore; memories and pictures down Wembley Way flooding social media yesterday prior to this year’s all-London affair between Chelsea and Spurs.
But what followed for Sunderland wasn’t so pretty.
An FA Cup quarter-final defeat at Hull was infuriating, yet five successive Premier League losses propelled Sunderland to the verge of Championship football.
There will be no Great Escape if Sunderland embark upon a similarly abject run at the same stage of this season. They WILL be relegated.
The threat of the drop won’t have been lost on Ellis Short, Lee Congerton and Margaret Byrne as they watched from the stands at Old Trafford on Saturday.
The 10 men never remotely threatened an unlikely comeback, failing to muster even a shotChris Young
While defeats for Hull, Aston Villa and Burnley left Sunderland’s position in the dogfight relatively unchanged, that three-point margin with the bottom three remains nervy and needs to be improved imminently.
The next two games against Hull and Villa will be decisive.
Anything less than four points will leave Gus Poyet’s men scrambling and scrapping, with supporters growing even more anxious and vocal than they already are.
Another entry into the hefty dossier of refereeing blunders against Sunderland this season may have overshadowed proceedings at Old Trafford.
But ultimately Roger East’s Cluedo case of whether it was Colonel Mustard or Professor Plum, with the candlestick, in the library, was a smokescreen.
Even though it was John O’Shea, rather than Wes Brown, who should have been giving his marching orders, it would still have been a red card and penalty, even though it didn’t take much contact for Radamel Falcao to go to ground after an immaculate piece of control – his last and only meaningful contribution of the afternoon.
It was still a game-changing moment that prompted defeat for Sunderland, left them empty-handed and puts more scrutiny on tomorrow night’s trip to the KC Stadium.
Ominously, these head-to-heads have proved to be a struggle for the Black Cats over the last couple of years. January’s victory over Burnley was the exception to the rule.
Sunderland don’t have the quality, clear strategy or pace to take the game to the opposition and impose themselves sufficiently.
That’s a problem, particularly against a Hull side who have held their nerve in their last two KC Stadium outings to record crucial victories over Villa and QPR.
Sunderland are far happier playing against the big boys when they are freed from expectation and can sit deep, put men behind the ball and try to cause the odd problem on the counter-attack.
Poyet’s side a look much more convincing proposition in that scenario, and have reaped rewards from it over the last 18 months.
For an hour, Saturday’s game was following the same pattern.
Other than a wayward Ashley Young shot which O’Shea cannoned against his own crossbar, Sunderland had coped comfortably with the unconvincing attacking forays from Manchester United.
Brown physically dominated Falcao, Lee Cattermole persistently broke up play with several superb interceptions, Connor Wickham tracked back diligently in a left-wing role and Patrick van Aanholt, at left-back, was much improved defensively in dealing with Angel Di Maria.
The £60million Argentine was frankly, awful, conceding possession six or seven times before he was hooked at the interval and replaced by Adnan Januzaj, who made a significant difference in the second half.
Young was the only player in the home ranks who seemed to have an idea over how to discover a key for the padlock on Sunderland’s defence.
The successive corners which went all the way back to David De Gea and prompted a chorus of boos on the terraces, highlighted the decent job Sunderland were doing in frustrating Louis van Gaal’s side.
Sunderland’s problem was that they gradually began to sit deeper and deeper, while becoming increasingly erratic in possession.
For the first 20 minutes, Poyet’s men had genuinely worried the hosts, with Wickham drawing a smart save out of De Gea and Jermain Defoe unleashing a couple of wayward shots from the edge of the box.
On the counter, United looked wide open, with Chris Smalling exuding an air of panic in the heart of their defence.
But Sunderland seemed to subconsciously accept far too prematurely that there was another 0-0 on the horizon, and crept into their shells, rather than preying on the vulnerability of the United back-line.
Yes, a draw at Old Trafford would have been a fine result for the Black Cats, but what if United actually scored?
In fairness, van Gaal’s side didn’t seem to be going anywhere prior to the penalty/red card, but that one moment left Sunderland reeling from a blow they never recovered from.
Video technology would have concluded that O’Shea was the principal culprit for bringing down Falcao, rather than Brown, in a fraction of the time the Sunderland skipper spent arguing with East over who was to blame.
If that proves to be Brown’s last appearance at Old Trafford – plausible considering the 35-year-old is out of contract at the Stadium of Light this summer – then it will be a sad finale for the ex-Manchester United defender.
But the nuances of the rule book and any subsequent appeal from Sunderland make no difference to the outcome.
Sunderland were a beaten side after Wayne Rooney converted the subsequent penalty.
The 10 men never remotely threatened an unlikely comeback, failing to muster even a shot, with the decision to bring on both Danny Graham and Steven Fletcher a strange one, considering neither are really capable of producing a goal from thin air.
It was simply a question of how many United would get after switching to cruise control. Rooney made it two, Ander Herrera thought he had added a third before the linesman’s flag was raised.
Poyet’s side just looked as if they were hankering for the final whistle so they could switch their attentions to Tuesday night.
In fairness, their full attention should be on ending Hull’s run of four consecutive wins over Steve Bruce’s former employers.
Oh, how they need to.
Last season’s Great Escape – like the League Cup final – was a once-in-a-generation fairytale.
But if Sunderland fall short against both Hull, and Aston Villa in 12 days, this club will be again facing up to the probability of life in the Championship, albeit this time, there may be no reprieve.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea, Smalling, Rojo, Evans, Valencia, Blind, Herrera, Young, Di Maria (Januzaj 46), Rooney (Mata 85), Falcao (Fellaini 67). Subs not used: Lindegaard, Carrick, McNair, Wilson. Booked: Valencia (45)
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Reveillere, O’Shea, Brown, van Aanholt, Cattermole, Larsson, Gomez, Johnson (Fletcher 81), Wickham (Graham 67), Defoe (Vergini 67). Subs not used: Mannone, Bridcutt, Coates, Watmore. Sent off: Brown (65). Booked: Van Aanholt (79)
Referee: Roger East