Sunderland would love to get their hands on the FA Cup again and they needed the spirit of Jim Montgomery to drag them through the third round yesterday. Leeds United are a long way from the era when taking their scalp relied on miracles but the width of a post saw Sunderland home.
Surviving members of Sunderland’s squad from the 1973 final took to the field before the start of yesterday’s tie, as old in appearance as that upset itself, but the nostalgia did not change the fact that these are different times and different clubs. Leeds are condemned to living life in the present. Even so, the balance of luck between these sides remains unchanged.
United’s present is giving them little for the scrapbook and their involvement in this season’s FA Cup ended without a twist at the Stadium of Light, though not for the want of trying. What magic there was came from Sunderland and Patrick Van Aanholt settled the game in the first half with a vicious stroke of his left foot.
The Dutchman’s bullet did the trick for Gus Poyet, and he and Sunderland had Leeds where they wanted them until half-time reversed the flow of the game. Deep into injury-time, with the tie in the balance, the outside of a post did what Montgomery had done to Peter Lorimer 41 years ago, denying Liam Cooper an equaliser.
Neil Redfearn held his head in his hands as the ball rebounded but for him and his squad, defeat on Wearside returned their focus to the matter at hand. Priorities in Leeds do not include the FA Cup. They revolve around avoiding relegation.
Redfearn’s line-up made no secret of how much the visit to Sunderland mattered in comparison to this weekend’s game at Bolton Wanderers. His approach against the Black Cats was unconventional and experimental, and it remains to be seen what he learned. Anything he did will have come from an improved second half in which his players gave Poyet the jitters.
Sunderland discovered earlier on that the brittle combination of Gaetano Berardi and Casper Sloth on the right-hand side of the pitch was their route into the fourth round. Stephen Fletcher and Ricardo Alvarez could both have scored before Van Aanholt did in the 32nd minute. The full-back was unerring when Fletcher’s pass allowed him to crack the ball past Marco Silvestri.
Redfearn promised to treat yesterday’s tie with due reverence but his usual line-up was nowhere to be seen. United’s side showed seven changes and there was a flood of rare appearances, on the pitch and off it.
Brian Montenegro and Dario Del Fabro, the most under-used of Leeds’ summer signings, made full debuts and Charlie Taylor replaced Stephen Warnock at left-back. The unheralded selection of Luke Murphy was as much about resting other players as it was about utilising him. Last fielded on the afternoon when Darko Milanic was sacked, he was prominent in the second half nonetheless.
Redfearn’s bench was just as unfamiliar, listing academy graduates Ross Killock and Kalvin Phillips alongside some recognisable faces. In its entirety, the make-up of United’s squad gave Poyet’s weakened team some proper context. From the outset, the tie was Sunderland’s to lose.
Redfearn’s formation – an overdue break from the diamond midfield – gave Leeds the protection of two midfielders in front of their defence but Sunderland took no time to get at Berardi and find United’s weak spot.
Van Aanholt’s overlapping runs kept the Swiss right-back on his heels and Silvestri did well to turn behind a rising shot from Emanuele Giaccherini after Leeds cracked open in the 12th minute. Alvarez’s effort from the corner that followed flicked off the body of a defender and clipped to the top of Silvestri’s crossbar. The goalkeeper was well beaten.
Sunderland’s defending felt anxious on occasions – Liam Bridcutt sliding in to knock away a Mirco Antenucci cross and Sebastian Coates causing panic in the stadium by hacking a clearance against Montenegro with no cover behind him – but the better chances dropped to them.
Fletcher should have scored 21 minutes into the game, unmarked and at full stretch on the edge of the six-yard box, but his finish from Van Aanholt’s cut-back sliced high into the crowd.
Santiago Vergini thought he had scored five minutes later but Sloth was in the right place to chest his header off the line after a corner sailed into the area.
It was enough to suggest that a goal was coming and Van Aanholt produced it on 32 minutes, crafting it on the side of the field where all the football had been played.
Sunderland worked the ball across the face of United’s 18-yard line and Fletcher, with his back to goal, laid the ball off to Van Aanholt who smashed it with his left foot and beat Silvestri at his far post.
Sunderland lost Jack Rodwell to injury before the interval but Sebastian Larsson replaced him, a demonstration of the gulf between well-heeled clubs and those lacking resources.
Redfearn could have replaced numerous players – passengers in Sloth and Adryan or a beleaguered Berardi – but there was no Lewis Cook in his squad and no Alex Mowatt. Sam Byram and Giuseppe Bellusci were left out too.
Poyet went for the jugular by withdrawing Alvarez and adding Connor Wickham to his forward line at half-time but Leeds caught Sunderland asleep in the first minute of the second half. Adryan burst down the right and found Van Aanholt out of position, and a weighted pass from Antenucci invited the Brazilian to attack Costel Pantilimon. Sunderland’s keeper closed his angles quickly and met Adryan’s shot with an outstretched leg.
That chance began an extended spell in which Leeds suddenly looked sharp, dangerous and capable of forcing an equaliser. Pantilimon beat away Montenegro’s rising effort and Larsson came within inches of bringing down Taylor inside Sunderland’s box, penalised with a free-kick by referee Mike Dean.
A low cut-back from Sloth on 54 minutes narrowly failed to gift the lively Montenegro a tap-in.
Fletcher could also have finished it, slipping away from Redfearn’s defence and drilling a deflected finish wide, but Montenegro’s mis-hit volley at the other end was a scare which Poyet could have done without.
Sunderland’s head coach had his heart in his mouth in the second minute of injury-time when Cooper rose to meet Murphy’s cross with a header which clipped the wrong side of Pantilimon’s right-hand post.
The near-miss was agonising but by the final whistle Redfearn was looking at a proper cup tie and a creditable performance.
In the circumstances, he can settle for that.
Sunderland: Vergini; Vergini, Coates, O’Shea, van Aanholt; Bridcutt; Alvarez (Wickham 45), Rodwell (Larsson 37), Gomez, Giaccherini (Johnson 73); Fletcher. Substitutes not used: Stryjek, Buckley, Beadling, Robson.
Leeds United: Silvestri; Berardi, Cooper, Del Fabro, C Taylor; Murphy, Austin; Sloth, Adryan (Sharp 62), Montenegro (Doukara 85); Antenucci. Substitutes not used: S Taylor, Thompson, Dawson, Killock, Phillips.