THE HAND of God and the hand of Vito Mannone helped guide cup heroes Sunderland down Wembley way, according to a South Tyneside chaplain.
For while it was the Italian shot-stopper who repelled Manchester United in a dramatic Capital One Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out, divine intervention may also have been at play.
The club’s chaplain, Father Marc Lyden-Smith, from Hebburn, was among the thousands of Black Cats fans roaring their favourites to glory at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
And the team also had support from high above, in the form of adopted Sunderland fan Pope Francis, as they made their first Wembley appearance since 1992.
Father Lyden-Smith gave the Pontiff a club shirt during a visit to Rome last October, and says the avid football fan still looks out for results from the Stadium of Light.
He said: “I know Pope Francis will definitely be aware of the result. He takes a lot of interest in football, and was a season ticket holder at San Lorenzo in his native Argentina.
“Now the club has signed two Argentinians this week, that will strengthen the connection. It can only help to have Pope Francis as a supporter.”
The 32-year-old, who went to St Aloysius primary school and St Joseph’s Secondary in Hebburn and is now a priest at St Mary’s Cathedral in Newcastle, led a training ground mass with the triumphant team this morning.
He was still coming back down to earth after seeing the Premier League outfit book a cup final spot with Manchester City in March and will be travelling to London with the team for the showpiece final on March 2.
He added: “I was there with the away fans at Old Trafford. It was thrilling.
“It was the most enjoyable away game I have been to. The end of the game was joy to devastation to joy and disbelief. It was a real rollercoaster.
“I was quite confident before the penalty shootout started. Vito Mannone has been fantastic for us. I had told a few people that I thought it would come down to penalties.”
Sunderland’s victory was hailed by Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn.
The lifelong Sunderland fan said: “I’m over the moon. After a poor start to the season, we’ve gone on a fantastic cup run and I’m confident that this amazing victory means that we’ve now turned the corner and can look forward to future success.”
Ray Spencer, executive director of the Customs House and lifelong Sunderland fan, said: “I’m ecstatic.
“Going to Wembley is always exciting but I haven’t been to the new Wembley yet.
“There’s a lot of people who had written us off, but I remember we’ve been written off by people in the past before and we’re still here.
“There’ll be a lot of fans at Wembley making a lot of noise and I think we could surprise the footballing world.”