CRESTFALLEN, tearful and utterly spent of energy.
As Sunderland’s players slumped to the turf in agony while the 30,000 from Wearside still sang their names, the pain of defeat began to sink in.
For 40-odd minutes or so, Sunderland sensed that this might just be their year and that the baton from 1973 would finally be passed on to another generation.
But when the agony finally begins to recede later on this week, Sunderland’s players can look back on their efforts with immense pride.
Unlike in 1985 or 1992, Sunderland got to a major final and performed. Boy did they perform.
Beforehand, Gus Poyet had spoken about how he just wanted to see his side do themselves justice and if Yaya Toure planted one in the top corner from 25 yards, he couldn’t do much about it. It would prove to be a brutally cruel prophecy.
But on the big stage Sunderland didn’t choke. They played their part in an absorbing encounter where they pushed Manchester City to their limits and were undone by two goals of supreme quality.
If any side froze during the first half, it was City, as Sunderland thoroughly deserved their half-time advantage. If it hadn’t been for a magnificent last-gasp challenge from Vincent Kompany when Fabio Borini was clean through, it could have been far worse for Manuel Pellegrini’s side - a pivotal moment in the encounter.
Sunderland hastled, harried, pressed and chased City onto the back foot.
From the moment Phil Bardsley thundered into David Silva during the opening exchanges, there was a steely intent around Sunderland.
Poyet’s decision to introduce Seb Larsson back into the starting XI and hand Borini his favoured central striker role paid dividends.
Larsson was excellent in making the most of Sunderland’s extra midfielder and produced several moments of quick footwork to set the Black Cats away on the counter-attack.
Borini took his chance even more impressively.
Man City’s centre-halves were never given time on the ball, as the Italian chased every lost cause, worked the channels and dragged Vincent Kompany out of his comfort zone.
And what about the finish. A moment of impeccable composure and quality to steer the ball in the far corner with the outside of his right foot.
The return of Lee Cattermole was pivotal too.
Cattermole controlled proceedings in the first half; spraying the ball around effortlessly, nicking possession away from Man City and setting Sunderland away on the counter - perfectly highlighted by the first goal.
There was always going to be a reaction during the second half from Man City, particularly as they had been so below par during the opening 45 minutes.
But it wasn’t a case of City repeatedly carving Sunderland open before finally getting the ball over the line.
When the opposition score two goals of such magnificence, particularly the distance of the equaliser, there’s not a lot else to do than applaud.
Sunderland eventually regrouped and it was City who were happy to hold on, with Pellegrini tellingly removing Silva for the more protective presence of Javi Garcia.
As the clock ticked down though, those Herculean efforts began to take their toll.
Poyet’s side were clearly leggy and drained and looked more and more vulnerable on the counter-attack.
But there was still to be one last chance and what an opportunity it was for Steven Fletcher, who had actually looked bright after coming on. He fluffed it in the most spectacular way.
City’s third was largely inconsequential. The damage had already been done by those two devastating strikes.
The exercise of walking up to the royal box to collect their runners-up medals was a painful one for Sunderland’s players.
But they can hold their heads high. as can their supporters.
They will be able to hold them even higher if they reproduce that performance over the run-in. Eleven performances like that in the final Premier League encounters will surely see the Black Cats beat the drop.