Draws rarely constitute disasters but there are exceptions to every rule and Gus Poyet fears an FA Cup fifth-round replay with Southampton could prove calamitous for his Sunderland side
"The worst result against Southampton is a replay," says a manager acutely mindful of the potential effect of fixture congestion on a relegation-threatened team. "Is it worse than losing? Yes."
It somehow seems rank incompetence that Sunderland meet Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final on Sunday week, yet have spent virtually the entire season in the Premier League's bottom three.
Much as he would relish being the club's first manager to secure silverware since Bob Stokoe in 1973, Poyet appreciates the paradox. He is also uncomfortably aware of the uneasy doubles achieved by, among others, Wigan who won last season's FA Cup but were relegated to the Championship and Birmingham, who went down in 2011 after winning the League Cup.
"The last thing we want to do is a Wigan," says Poyet. "I have to manage the situation. I don't want my players to think they can't get injured or get another booking in case they miss Wembley."
Alex McLeish appreciates the delicacy of the Uruguayan's balancing act. "It's the fine line between being a managerial genius and an idiot," says the former Birmingham manager, who went from the zenith of celebrating Obafemi Martins winning goal against Arsenal to the nadir of relegation. "If we'd stayed up in 2011, it would have been the greatest season in Birmingham's history but the League Cup took it out of us."
Roberto Martínez acknowledges Wigan's Premier League exit represented "the lowest of the lows" but refuses to blame an FA Cup run culminating in victory against Manchester City. "The Cup helped give us direction and confidence," says the Everton manager. "I couldn't quite believe we went down."
Under Paolo Di Canio Sunderland narrowly escaped relegation last May partly due to Wigan's failure to cope with an end- of-season fixture pile-up.
In Poyet's position Steve McClaren would presumably prefer to "take the positives". Early in 2006 Middlesbrough appeared in serious relegation peril. After losing 7-0 at Arsenal and 4-0 at home to Aston Villa his job was under threat and the dressing room unsettled.
Subsequent knock-out success changed Boro's season beyond recognition. Not content with making the FA Cup semi-finals, they reached the Uefa Cup final. No matter they lost it 4-0 to Sevilla. The momentum generated by that European charge altered the agenda so radically that by May Boro finished 14th in the League and McClaren had a new title – England manager.
"It's no coincidence that teams who struggle in the league tend to do well in the cups," says Sunderland's former Boro winger, Adam Johnson. He struggles to empathise when Wearsiders claim they would prefer to beat City next weekend and/or win the FA Cup than avoid relegation. "I really can't understand why some fans would rather win a trophy than stay up. Premier League survival is much more important. It's about being a Premier League footballer. A Cup final is just one game. We've all seen teams win a cup, go down and never be seen again?"
Having succeeded Di Canio in October, Poyet has used Sunderland's cup ties as invaluable experiments intended to accelerate the absorption of his possession-based passing principles in a squad that took time to comprehend their new manager's philosophy.
Significantly November's 2-1 League Cup win over Southampton saw him road-test his hallmark 4-1-4-1 formation and the now indispensable midfielder Ki Sung-yueng to impressive effect. Four days later Manchester City were beaten 1-0 in the League and a renaissance, albeit fragile, was under way.
Now, though, Poyet fears that in the context of a survival struggle the FA Cup may be a field too far. "The intensity of so many games is not nice," he says. "I need to find out how to switch off. I used to read. But now I can't read. It doesn't go in. It's not a normal life."