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The Sunderland manager wants more memories to enhance the famous FA Cup final win over Leeds in 1973
Martin O’Neill still remembers FA Cup final afternoons as occasions when entire families gathered around television sets, often with the curtains drawn to shut out invariably bright May sunshine. “I used to watch from early morning though. My favourite bit was when the cameras took you to the team hotels,” says Sunderland’s manager, recalling his boyhood in Northern Ireland.
Although David Moyes is 11 years O’Neill’s junior and Scottish, Everton’s manager also grew up similarly beguiled by the competition’s romance. If decades of playing, and then managing, professionally have since eliminated any lingering sentimentality from their characters, both men are more than ready to be enraptured all over again this spring.
While a Wembley win would provide Moyes with the first trophy of 10 fine years at Goodison Park â€“ not to mention offering the perfect farewell were Tottenham Hotspur to come calling this summer â€“ O’Neill knows that the collection of a piece of silverware could kickstart his ambition of turning Sunderland into regular European challengers.
He feels his side, lacking the suspended StÃ©phane SessÃ¨gnon and Lee Cattermole, are slight underdogs at Goodison this lunchtime but is relieved that Nicklas Bendtner has recovered from a knee injury sustained during last Saturday’s home win against Liverpool. As the striker, on loan from Arsenal, was carried off around the pitch’s perimeter he waved to bemused fans as if he were royalty, but O’Neill suspects such brazen self assurance may serve Sunderland well on Saturday.
“Nicklas is very important,” he says. “He’s a big game player and this is a big game. He’s up there with the most self-confident footballers I’ve worked with, but I think that’s healthy.”
If Bendtner believes he is best suited to the Champions League stage, O’Neill, twice a European Cup-winner as a Forest player, is not about to diminish the FA Cup’s importance. “Over the last 10 to 12 years it may have lost some of its magic,” he concedes. “But I’m hoping it might get that back over the next 60 or 70. I’m hoping it will become the most important cup competition again.”
Even now, no one on Wearside underestimates the value of Sunderland’s 1-0 triumph against Leeds United. “This club has lived on 1973, Jim Montgomery’s double save, Ian Porterfield scoring the goal, and that’s really, absolutely fantastic,” says O’Neill. “But you would like to think at some stage or another in the next 100 years Sunderland supporters will be able to share a few more good memories.
“For a club of this size to have not won a trophy since 1973 is a great shame. We should be doing better, but the lesson of history is that these opportunities don’t come around very often. You think that, at the age of 21 or 22, you lose a quarter-final, thats all right, it’ll be around next year. Then you’re 29 and it hasn’t happened for you.
“Even in our great days at Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough the FA Cup, which was massive then, eluded us. We lost a quarter-final against West Bromwich Albion, it was the fifth round the following year against Arsenal and [Garry] Birtles missed a sitter, and he didn’t miss too many for us. I could go through many harrowing moments, like the quarter-final against Newcastle United in 1974. I was 22 at the time and I still think about the way we lost that tie about 14 times a day.”
If the FA Cup is an itch O’Neill would love to scratch, Moyes’s desire to get his hands on this year’s trophy explains why the manager who led Everton to the 2009 final only to lose to Chelsea selected a weakened team for Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield.
Managers do not risk forfeiting Merseyside derbies lightly but, ask Moyes â€“ who has never been beaten by Sunderland at Goodison since he took charge â€“ if he harbours any regrets and the reply is unequivocal. “None whatsoever,” he says. “Sunderland’s a big game for us and I wanted all my key players fit. It’s very hard to win the Premier League these days so the FA Cup gives us an opportunity.”