Phil Smith: A bittersweet day lies ahead as Lee Johnson's Sunderland look to write new chapter of Wembley history

Phil Smith previews Sunderland’s latest, and strangest, Wembley final

Sunday, 14th March 2021, 8:00 am
Sunderland fans at Wembley in 2019

The sage and wary have seen this coming over the horizon for a while now.

It was never hubris, just a hard-earned understanding of football, Sunderland and fate.

What started as a lingering thought as Aston Villa’s youngsters were brushed aside became impossible to shake as Carlisle went the same way and slowly but surely, Lee Johnson’s nascent project edged past Port Vale and Oldham Athletic.

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Sunday's Papa John's Trophy final will take place behind closed doors

All the while a pandemic surged and the prospect of returning to grounds drifted.

Yep. They’re going to go the bloody distance and no one will be able to see it.

Welcome to Wearside, home to the grizzled veterans of Wembley agony. It’s a cast of tens of thousands and everyone has their own scars.

Maybe it’s the story of Patrick Bauer. A game that started with a remarkable gift and ended with tiring legs and a growing sense of dread. A quick free-kick, a six-yard box scramble and the sound of Charlton supporters ruining Twist and Shout for a generation.

Maybe it’s the story of a double substitution that turned a tide earlier that year. This one is kind of a funny story. We weren’t supposed to be bothered about this daft cup final but then we all got together and sang some songs and drank some beers and then Aiden McGeady scored and my God, it felt so good. It didn’t last. On came Brett Pitman and Gareth Evans, Portsmouth went direct and that time Sunderland had a team who couldn’t cope. It took an Oli Hawkins penalty to settle it but that oh so familiar sense of dread had been long growing by then.

It could be the story of 2014. Sunderland did their city proud that day and for a while Fabio Borini unleashed sheer delirium. In those days, though, Wembley seemed to be Yaya’s turf and even his crosses found the top corner (yeah he probably meant it, but losing gives you the right to be bitter).

Perhaps it’s the story of Clive Mendonca. We don’t need to relive that one. Just turn on any Sky Sports channel in the week before a play-off campaign and you’ll be within fifteen minutes of a rerun. Yeah, that one really hurt.

1992 was a spirited run and the odds were long at the end, for sure. But if you’d seen the way Gordon Armstrong rose at Roker Park you couldn’t help but wonder and at half-time, there was nothing in it. Steve McManaman, though, he could play and Ian Rush, he could finish. No shame in it but no less pain, either.

Nearly there, but a few ghosts still to be exorcised yet.

It could well be the strange tale of 1990, a Swindon Town improbably managed by an Argentinian great and even more improbably, playing in his image. Only a cruel deflection condemned Sunderland to defeat. Only a minor miracle of goalkeeping and wasteful finishing saved them from the kind of scoreline that leaves you weighing up the relative merits of Rugby.

It might be the story of the Football League centenary and…. No, we won’t milk that one. What exactly was all that about?

It may very well, though, be the Milk Cup final. Defeat to Norwich on the finest of margins and two sliding doors moments.

Everyone has their scar that runs the deepest.

Plenty have been unlucky enough to have been there for every last one of those failures, hearts broken over and over again. Each one a vital chapter in Sunderland’s folklore, a club necessarily sustained by faith and loyalty, because there is really no option but to wear these scars with pride. These are our trophies.

So how will we remember this strangest of days, in this strangest of cups, in these most strange times?

What would it really mean to win this final, a competition in which you can get two points for a draw, sponsored once by a price comparison site you’d never heard of and now by the nation’s second biggest (probably) pizza takeaway chain? A tournament that, really, Sunderland should never have found themselves competing for in the first place.

Will there really be any catharsis in victory? There’ll be no tears of relief, none of the collective joy that leaves you hugging strangers and remembering why every last one of those scars is all just a part of the journey. There’d be celebrations for sure, but Elvis doesn’t sound as good without 35,000 behind him, scarves aloft, loud and proud.

It can’t possibly be anything but bittersweet, a day of what if and if only.

Maybe though, in time, it could be something else too.

Maybe it will be a day that came at the end of the bleakest of winters, a symbolic afternoon that marked the start of Sunderland’s journey back to where they belonged. A day when a sense of pride and direction returned.

And for sure, the tournament itself isn’t that big a deal but remember what it was like when they failed in it, dumped out by U21s and a struggling League Two side? Wouldn’t it be something to just get the job done?

So dust down your half of the sofa, pick your favourite cushion, grasp your virtual ticket, say a prayer to your gods and open up a cold #canforkyril.

It’s going to be an odd day, when there are only two things that we know for sure.

One, that we don’t know how it’ll feel if Sunderland win, but we sure as hell know how it will feel if they lose. I still remember how Patrick Bauer broke my heart.

And two, most important of all, from this winter and everything we’ve had to deal with, in football and in life: Things can only get better.

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