Sunderland head coach Gus Poyet insisted the FA Cup was not a distraction after seeing his Premier League side edge past Championship side Leeds and into the fourth round.
Patrick van Aanholt returned from a 10-match injury lay-off to fire the Black Cats to a 1-0 victory, just the club’s second at the Stadium of Light this season in all competitions and a repeat of the famous 1973 final success against the same opposition.
The game was played out in front of a healthy crowd of 30,302, boosted by 5,200 travelling fans, on a weekend when many managers, including Leeds’ Neil Redfearn, chose to make wholesale changes.
Poyet himself made six, three of them designed to ease Van Aanholt, Ricky Alvarez and Emanuele Giaccherini back from injury, but insisted the cup remains a priority.
He said: “I like it, I love it, I think it’s great. It brings special moments. When it’s close to the semi-final, when it’s against top teams and you win the game, it brings the team together, especially with the fans as well.
“I love to play football. If somebody thinks that playing a cup game in midweek or the middle of January is a distraction, they should go to the casino or to the cinema.
“I like football. I don’t get distracted playing football.”
Sunderland dominated the opening half but had only Van Aanholt’s sumptuous strike to show for it as a series of other chances when begging.
But, as they rather wilted after the break, Leeds responded. Costel Pantilimon denied Adryan and Brian Montenegro during the first five minutes of the second half before Liam Cooper headed against the upright two minutes into injury time as the prospects of a replay slipped agonisingly from the visitors’ grasp.
Poyet said: “We needed to win at home. It was quite embarrassing that we had played four or five months of football and had won only once, so it was time to win.
“It was a decent performance in the first half, totally controlled. When you are in that situation, you need to put the game to bed, finish it, score two or three and make sure the second half is just a matter of controlling.
“We didn’t do it and in the second half, Leeds had nothing to lose and they threw themselves forward, which of course created a little bit of nerves in the stadium.”
Redfearn was delighted with his team’s performance on Wearside and was convinced they should have been awarded a penalty for Sebastian Larsson’s challenge on Charlie Taylor shortly after half-time.
He said: “It looked a penalty to me. The referee made a decision and you have got to abide by that, but it came on the back of quite a weight of pressure when we were getting in and around their box.
“A goal at that time to make it 1-1, I think we would have gone on to win it. I thought we played really well.
“In the second half, I thought we were the better side by a fair stretch. We turned it into a cup tie. We got at them and I thought they struggled and I thought we were really unlucky today.”
SUNDERLAND: Pantilimon, Vergini, Coates, O’Shea, Van Aanholt, Rodwell (Larsson 37), Bridcutt, Gomez, Giaccherini (Johnson 74), Fletcher, Alvarez (Wickham 46).
LEEDS: Silvestri, Berardi, Del Fabro, Cooper, Charlie Taylor, Sloth, Austin, Murphy, Adryan (Sharp 62), Antenucci, Montenegro (Doukara 85).
Referee: Mike Dean (Wirral).