Can Sunderland dream of reaching Wembley twice?

Carlisle United keeper Greg Fleming a fails to stop a Adam Johnson free Kick from going into the net for Sunderlands first goal of the during the FA Cup game at the Stadium of Light. Photograph by FRANK REID
Carlisle United keeper Greg Fleming a fails to stop a Adam Johnson free Kick from going into the net for Sunderlands first goal of the during the FA Cup game at the Stadium of Light. Photograph by FRANK REID

THE matchday programme was quick to remind us that Messiah Bob Stokoe managed both these clubs.

While the Stadium of Light crowd of 21,973 - 1973 geddit? - was a further nudge in the direction of the magic of the cup.

That more than 5,000 Cumbrians should travel over from the North West - considerably more than the League One side’s average home attendance at Brunton Park this season - suggested that many others too, believed in the romance of the competition.

But that so few, comparatively, should turn up to support the home team, and that a bumper crowd is not expected for the Capital One Cup semi-final against Manchester United tomorrow, indicates just how drained Sunderland fans’ hearts and wallets have been drained by this dispiriting Premier League season.

Those who did turn up were in good voice as they, and the away support, stoked up a good cup atmosphere.

But this was not a game, initially at least, to quicken the pulse or gladden the heart despite Gus Poyet naming a strong Sunderland side.

The Black Cats’ boss made six changes from the side which disappointed against Aston Villa on New Year’s Day.

But with Wes Brown returning from a three-game suspension to captain the team and everyone in the starting 11 barring Ji Dong-won having had plenty of first-team experience this season, this looked a side to sweep Carlisle away.

It did not happen because the visitors, well-organised and defensively-minded, held their nerve.

It was not until the 17th minute when Adam Johnson threaded the perfect through ball down the middle to release Jozy Altidore on goal that the game burst into life.

But Altidore, scorer of only one goal this season, predictably fluffed his lines, the big American carrying the ball too far and seeing his shot charged down by keeper Greg Fleming in a one-on-one in which the striker had been favourite to score.

Sunderland persevered in the minutes that followed, though Ji Dong-won also delayed his shot while Craig Gardner volled a Seb Larsson corner from the left wide.

Carlisle’s first effort on goal did not come until the 22nd minute when midfielder Prince Buaben gained ground down the left and his low shot was palmed by Vito Mannone around his right-hand post.

Carlisle made no progress from the corner and then Matt Robson drove a low shot comfortably wide but that was enough to encourage the Cumbrian army high in the North Stand.

Sunderland though were starting to get into their stride now, Gardner stinging the fingers of Fleming with a trademark volley from the left in the 25th minute

And when Sean O’Hanlon was booked for bringing down Altidore in the 28th minute, Larsson’s free-kick down the middle was inches away from being reached and turned in by the stretching Ji.

The half-hour came up with Sunderland taking charge and they got the breakthrough goal in the 33rd minute after Gardner was brought down on the right of goal, 25 yards out, by Buaben.

Adam Johnson, such a peripheral and disappointing figure for Sunderland this season, was to take centre stage in this game - just as he had one on his debut when he dazzled in the cup against lower league Morecambe

We know he can be a flat-track bully.

The bigger question is, can he produce the goods regularly in the Premier League?

But against Carlisle, he provided exactly what was needed - clipping home the perfect free-kick from 25 yards, a teasing left-foot effort from right of goal, which curled away from Fleming and into the keeper’s top left-hand corner.

It was the winger’s third goal of the season - his first since scoring in the 3-1 home defeat to Spurs in early December.

Gutsy Carlisle tried to come back straight away and might have got a fortuitous equaliser when Ondrej Celustka almost put the ball into his own net from a couple of yards out in the 36th minute.

From the resulting corner from the left, Mannone charged down a close-range shot from Lewis Guy at his far post and Sunderland looked as though they would see off the threat.

But after losing the ball high up the pitch in the 43rd minute, Sunderland fell to the counter-attack when David Amoo swung in a cross from the right which was only half-cleared off the goal-line and Sunderland-supporting Spennymoor-born Matt Robson, smashed a spectacular left-foot shot in off the crossbar at the far post.

It was a real set-back just before the break but it could have been worse had Mannone not caught a swerving, dipping long-range shot from James Berrett from the last kick of the half.

Sunderland started the second half though much more positively than they had the first, and got their reward in the 50th minute when Johnson gambled at the far post on a right-wing cross from Seb Larsson.

The ex-Manchester City man struck a first-time volley rather than bringing the ball down and his boldness paid off, the ball deflecting off the leg of Carlisle captain Sean O’Hanlon and trickling in at the far post.

This was the pivotal moment as far as Carlisle boss Graham Kavanagh was concerned.

“Physically, you could see the shoulders drop a bit once that goal went in,” said the ex-Black Cat who felt referee Neil Swarbrick should have ruled the goal out for a foul in the build-up.

Luck was not with the visitors though and you could see as the hour came up that they were running out of steam and ideas.

Poyet capitalised bringing on the fresh legs of Duncan Watmore, the teenager attacker who has done so well in Kevin Ball’s Under 21 development side and the former Altrincham side thrilled the home fans with his directness and pace.

The youngster could easily have been reward with a goal - Fleming palming away Watmore’s shot after he had linked up well with Altidore.

Instead it was left to another debutant, El-Hadji Ba to wrap up the game when he took advantage of great approach work by Johnson and a deft set-up by Altidore, to stroke the ball home from 10 yards in the 89th minute.

Carlisle had never given up but in the closing stages they were in danger of being outclassed as Sunderland dominated and created several good chances not taken

The 3-1 victory though was comfortable, assured and professional and bodes well for the fourth round, be it Kidderminster or Peterborough who provide the opposition at the Stadium of Light.

It’s not quite Stokoe and 73 and all that for Sunderland fans just yet.

But while Sunderland’s Premier League form remains terrifyingly inconsistent, they are proving relentless in both cups competitions.

No-one dares to believe just yet in a season characterised by awful and frequent disappointments.

But a good performance against Manchester United in tomorrow’s Capital One Cup semi-final might just have Sunderland fans starting to dream an impossible dream again - the prospect of Wembley on two fronts!