Sunderland and Bolton have no reason to fear long run

Tim Rich
Tuesday 14 January 2003 01:00
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It will be a busy few months for Jim Montgomery, Bobby Kerr and the rest of Bob Stokoe's boys of '73, who 30 years ago brought the FA Cup to Sunderland after one of the most extraordinary of all finals. In Bolton, Nat Lofthouse will be asked for his memories of perhaps a greater final 50 years ago, when the Wanderers lost to a side inspired by the 38-year-old Stanley Matthews.

Sunderland and Bolton meet tonight in an FA Cup third-round replay. In the not too distant past it would be seen as a last chance of glory for both sides; a tie after which the loser would be told their season was over. No longer. Neither team, 18th and 17th in the Premiership respectively, would mind being beaten and both managers are likely to litter their team-sheet with reserves. League survival is now all that matters at the Reebok and the Stadium of Light, where the FA Cup is seen as a deadweight, with the potential to drag them down to the chilly, cashless depths of the Nationwide League.

The evidence to support the theory that a long cup run can risk relegation is contradictory. The fact that none of the eight teams from the old Second Division which has reached the FA Cup final since 1947 has been promoted would support it. However, Stuart McCall believes that Sheffield United's march to the semi-finals of the League Cup has transformed their league form and the financial chaos at Bramall Lane.

"When I joined at the beginning of the season, the club needed to get so much money in by Christmas and without the cup run and the Sky money, we would have failed," said the United midfielder. "Somebody would have had to have gone; Phil Jagielka, Michael Tonge or Michael Brown. But the good thing is that they will all be here until the end of the season and with them we have a great chance of going up."

Nick Pickering was part of the Sunderland side which made it to the 1985 League Cup final against Norwich, an occasion best remembered for the fact that both teams were subsequently relegated. Two years later, Pickering underpinned the defence of Coventry's most fondly-remembered team that not only won a stirring FA Cup final but which, having avoided relegation by two points the previous season, used the Cup run as a springboard for a top-10 finish.

"With Sunderland, what did for us was what happened after the final," said Pickering, part of a team which fought their way through nine matches to reach Wembley. "The cup run had brought big crowds and loads of atmosphere to Roker Park but we were abysmal against Norwich; it was the worst day of my football life. We were so flat afterwards and we could not raise our game for the rest of the season." In the dozen matches which followed, Sunderland won just one.

For Pickering, Coventry in 1987 was a wholly different experience. "We were really driven by fulfilling every player's dream, not just lifting the Cup but playing in front of 100,000 and it rubbed off on our whole season. I remember Alan Durban, who was my manager at Sunderland, telling me: 'To win nothing in your career is a terrible shame'. I'll never forget the words of John Sillett, who was giving his team talk before extra time against Tottenham. I had cramp and he said: 'You might never get another chance of something like this again. You could be finished next season; don't let the moment go'. I was 23 then and I was finished at 27 by a toe injury, but I'll always have the medal."

There have been three sides which have made FA Cup finals and been relegated. Sam Allardyce and Howard Wilkinson would point to Middlesbrough, who six years ago fought through to both cup finals and went down. However, Boro were bottom of the Premiership in January, the month their FA Cup campaign opened with a 6-0 thrashing of Chester. Thereafter, with their fixture list bogged down in cup ties, their next 17 matches earned them 24 points, enough if repeated over the season to have taken them into the top 10. Middlesbrough were inspired, not destroyed by the cups.

Leicester, in 1969, and Brighton, 14 years later, also had the sweet-and-sour taste of Wembley and relegation. Leicester, who reached January having picked up four victories from 25 games, found their form remained the same, although they would have stayed up had the final match of the season at Old Trafford, played nearly a month after the Cup final, been won.

Brighton were relegated before they reached Wembley in 1983, mainly because of an atrocious record away from the Goldstone Ground. Their points- to-games ratio was fractionally worse during their cup run but not enough to have made any difference to their fate.

The one clear case for an FA Cup run destroying domestic form can be found at Ipswich in 1978. Their path to Wembley was not exactly onerous: Cardiff, Hartlepool, Bristol Rovers, Millwall and West Brom. But in the 17 games after their FA Cup campaign began they won just two and their final match before taking on Arsenal in the final was a 6-1 thrashing by Aston Villa. And yet Ipswich not only survived they won the Cup, an achievement for which Sir Bobby Robson is still cherished in East Anglia. Few remember that they finished 18th

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