Football: Gray keen to catch the Foxes

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The Independent Online
IF THE tailors of Leicester are expecting a rush of eager Foxes ready to be measured up for any footballer's favoured apparel - the Wembley suit - then the Sunderland defender Michael Gray is warning them not to reach for the tape measures and pattern books just yet.

Leicester took a sizeable stride towards the famous old arena with their 2-1 Worthington Cup semi-final first-leg win at the Stadium of Light on Tuesday night, but Gavin McCann's late goal provided the First Division side with a measure of optimism.

And although Gray realises that Sunderland have a monumental task of overcoming the deficit when they visit Filbert Street on 17 February, he is adamant that the tie is far from over. "That goal has kept us in the game," he reasoned. "They came and played with five at the back and the forwards squeezed the full-backs when we had the ball. Maybe sometimes we rushed things a little bit, but when we got the ball down and passed it around, we looked the better side.

"They're very solid at the back and very hard to break down. They've done well in the Premiership this year, and I don't know how many clean sheets they've kept, but I can't see many goals going past them. They had a bit of a hiccup against Manchester United, and that's what we've got to do - break down the big lads at the back.

"Apart from that, they've got very good midfielders and Emile Heskey and Tony Cottee up front who can score goals. But the onus is on them. They're the home side and they got to bring the game to us. That's where we might find the gaps."

The defeat by Leicester was Sunderland's second by Premiership opposition in four days, following their 1-0 FA Cup reverse at Blackburn. Gray admitted that to come so close in both games had been both frustrating and encouraging. "The lads were very disappointed," he said. "That just shows how far we've come in the last three or four years since the manager's been here.

"In the past if we'd gone 1-0 or even 2-0 down, the lads might have thought we were out of the Cup. But we battled on and got the goal back and we're still in with a chance.

"Cup games are completely different from the Premiership. But we haven't been overawed by the teams we've played. If anything, we've outplayed them.

"We started very well in both games, pushing forward looking for goals. If we had got an early goal in one of the games, we could have gone on to score a lot more."

Sunderland return to First Division action on Saturday with a trip to Watford, and with promotion to the top flight the priority, they will have little trouble concentrating their minds on the immediate task.

Meanwhile, Leicester's Worthington Cup hero, Tony Cottee, has spelt out his determination to end a 16-year wait to win his first proper silverware in football. Only Ian Wright among current Premier League strikers has managed more League goals than Cottee's tally of 198, and in all competitions he has a career haul of 261.

However, the only medal the Londoner possesses is a League Cup gong from an unhappy spell in Malaysia two years ago. The 33-year-old Cottee's indifference to that success is such that the medal remains unpacked in the loft of his house. But it will be a different story if he helps the Foxes to complete their second League Cup triumph in three seasons.

Cottee's two goals against Sunderland means Martin O'Neill's side are in the stronger position for the second leg of the semi-final, despite Gray's confident assertions.

Cottee admitted: "My target is not simply to get back to Wembley, but to get that winner's medal. The fact I haven't got one in 16 years really annoys me. I got a medal in Malaysia, but that doesn't really count. The highest I've finished in the League was third with West Ham, and I lost three finals at Wembley with Everton.

"My scoring record throughout my career has been quite good and I keep setting myself new targets in that direction to help keep me going.

"But if at the end of it all I've got no medals it will take some of the edge off my own personal achievements. There's not much in my career that I regret, but that would be one thing."