WHEN Malcolm Crosby recalls that superb cup run to Wembley more than two decades ago now, a run which culminated in Sunderland’s first FA Cup final since Bob Stokoe led his players out in 1973, he can’t prevent a smile breaking across his face.
But look just fractionally behind the easy smile and you can see a sadness tinged with regret.
Heartbreaks never really heal, they just become easier to deal with as time passes.
And in that one expression which flits across the 59-year-old’s still youthful face you can read all the joy and disappointment that an epic cup run can reap.
There’s much to talk about for those who lived through that enthralling roller-coaster ride to Wembley – be they supporters, players or coaching staff – on a run which eventually ended with a 2-0 defeat to a Liverpool side coming to the end of its domination of English football as Manchester United’s began .
For half-an-hour Crosby does talk, about inheriting a listing Sunderland side mid-season and the games that got them to the Twin Towers: Port Vale, Oxford United, West Ham (twice), Chelsea, Norwich City…..then Liverpool.
But if there’s one message to be taken from the wide-ranging interview, it’s a harsh, still raw, message to pass on to Gus Poyet and his players and it is this: Winning is everything!
“I wasn’t really able to savour the cup final experience,” confesses Crosby, now chief scout at Lee Clark’s Birmingham City, as he remembers Wembley day.
“All the other cup rounds were fantastic because we won.
“And then when you get to the final and you don’t win, it’s something you don’t really want to remember or talk about because no-one really remembers who comes second.
“There was a flatness afterwards and that is completely understandable.
“We got to the break with the scoreline goalless and at half-time we went in and discussed what we needed to do.
“But to let a goal in so early in the second-half against good opposition, good players – so many players who had won so many things – well, that then made it very hard and a really uphill task.”
Mark Thomas’s 47th minute goal knocked the stuffing out of Sunderland and Ian Rush’s 68th minute goal only confirmed a result which never looked in doubt as Liverpool coasted towards the lifting of the cup trophy.
“Had we gone 20 minutes or whatever, it might have been different but it wasn’t to be,” sighed Crosby, who had inherited long-serving Denis Smith’s side on the eve of New Year’s Eve.
“There was a flatness about it afterwards because you’ve lost.
“It doesn’t matter how big a team you are, if you get beaten there’s going to be a flatness.
“And when I look back, at the amount of support we had in those rounds, the night game at Chelsea, the night game at West Ham, it was just fantastic throughout and just a shame we couldn’t have had had one more great result for them.”
If there’s a second, more encouraging message, that can be taken from Crosby’s recollections, it is this: Lady Luck can be your 12th man.
“You need a little bit of luck when you have cup runs,” he reflected.
“I think looking back we had a little bit of luck in some games, although I have to say that in some games we fully deserved the win.”
“Port Vale we deserved to win, Oxford we deserved to win but West Ham and Chelsea were very close and could have gone either way.
“I thought we did well against Chelsea at Roker Park and it was that point that we started to believe that, yeah, we can do this.
“And when you draw Norwich City in the semi-final you think you might just have a chance of going all the way.
“We did a good job on the day against Norwich, it wasn’t a great semi-final, but we got the job done: it was all that mattered, we got through.
“We had our moment in the final too when John Byrne, who had scored in every preceding round, had a decent chance but couldn’t put it away.”
That was the moment luck finally deserted Crosby’s Sunderland.
And if Poyet’s Sunderland are to prosper this weekend, they will need to work as hard as possible and then hope perhaps that one moment of luck that can define a final, falls their way this time.
“The difference is between winning and losing, you see,” smiles Crosby.
“If you win, you’re a hero for life.
“If you don’t? You’re not.
“It’s as simple as that.
“You can live off that win for the rest of your lives.
“The ‘73 lads have done that - through no choice of their own - they’re just automatically heroes for life because that’s the passion you get from Sunderland fans.
“Those that were there are still madly in love with that day, and why not? I was there as a Sunderland fan and it was fantastic.
“I was there in 1998 as well for the play-off final against Charlton, which was an amazing day - except we lost.
“I can’t tell you how disappointed I was that day.
Winners and losers.
Like Stokoe, Crosby had taken a Second Division side in against the leading opposition of the day but could not get over that final, hardest hurdle of all.
But although Crosby was not a winner at Wembley he still engineered that cup run which gave fans some wonderful memories.
And that day in the sun on the national stage was one for Sunderland fans to be proud of - proud that they made it in the first place.
Gus Poyet’s predecessor will hope his successor, many managers down the line, can go one better this time and he says the Uruguayan can take some hope from the fact that John O’Shea, Wes Brown, Ki Sung-Yueng, Craig Gardner and Seb Larsson have been on this stage before and emerged victorious.
“Gus has got players that have played in cup finals and I’m not sure we had too many,” he says, casting his mind back.
“Gary Bennett and Paul Bracewell had played in cup finals before but they had lost - which I think is significant.
“This Sunderland has plenty of players in their current squad, who are full internationals, who have been Wembley winners and that’s not a bad sign.
“It’s a good thing.
“Ultimately, it’s two teams on one day and Sunderland have got a chance.”
Crosby hopes that unlike himself, Poyet gets to savour and enjoy the experience of leading the Black Cats out of the tunnel this weekend.
“It’s an amazing honour to have led Sunderland out at Wembley,” he said. “I will never better it.
“When you think of all the top managers down the years who have never led their team out at Wembley and I’d been in the job, what, a few months?
“There are a very lucky, small number of managers who enjoy the experience of going there quite regularly but for most of us who get the privilege, it’s a once in a lifetime experience.”
Crosby had been Sunderland boss barely four months when that privilege came.
By interesting coincidence, Poyet will have been in charge almost exactly the same amount of time when he leads out his Sunderland side this Sunday.
Crosby will hopes that on match-day this particular Wembley weekend, that’s where the similarity ends.