Ever since the idea of going to the match last night was a thing I felt somewhat uneasy about the whole thing. From a purely cold-hearted, selfish perspective the competition can only benefit Sunderland. The fixture at Rochdale provided an ideal opportunity for Jan Kirchhoff and Jason Denayer to get ninety minutes of football under their belts in a relatively pressure-free environment. The youngsters at the club also were presented with the chance to test themselves against senior professionals in a 'competitive' environment.
But from a moral perspective it felt so wrong - why should a traditionally lower league-only competition now be organised around the best interests of Premier League and Championship clubs? Why, potentially, should the likes of Hartlepool United and Rochdale be denied the chance of a day out at Wembley at the expense of our under 23s?
As a supporter of a relatively unglamorous Premier League club I know exactly what it’s like to feel disillusioned with the power structure of clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea but here I was supporting my club doing exactly the same.
Having listened to both sides of the argument I eventually decided to witness the competition first hand and see if our potential player development made up for the natural reservations I had about the EFL Trophy.
One of the key arguments I have heard in favour of the Checkatrade trophy is that it has given players and clubs a more desirable alternative to U21s football, which often lacks competitiveness and context.
However, this rationale was blown out of the water upon arrival in Rochdale. As we walked through the streets surrounding the ground before finding a pub we didn’t spot a single person in either Sunderland or Rochdale colours. Once inside, we were greeted to an atmosphere typical to a village local on Sunday afternoon. There was no buzz or anticipation about the forthcoming game and despite the pub in question being just outside the ground, an hour before kick off the place was mostly empty. Although it filled up steadily the usual pre-match patter was subdued to the point of it feeling like a pre-season friendly.
It's pleasing to note that the game was played at a fast tempo and with a more competitive edge than I had expected, but there still seemed little context behind the match. This was highlighted by the penalty shootout at the end of the game. Had normal group stage rules applied Sunderland would have considered themselves pleased to earn a hard fought point at a League One side. But the penalty shootout gave the game an unsatisfactory conclusion. Sunderland had lost the match on penalties but still picked up a point, Rochdale had won the match, but didn’t come away with maximum points. As the decisive penalty was struck, there was a very odd feeling around the ground. The Dale players didn’t rush to congratulate the penalty taker and showed little outward emotion. The Sunderland players seemed equally unshaken by the outcome. But who can really blame them? Awarding win-draws in group stage football does appear ludicrous.
Another argument is the positives of young players experiencing more charged atmospheres and learning to thrive in them. Forgive me for being a cynic but I highly doubt playing in front of little over a thousand people at Rochdale provides this. Throughout the game the atmosphere barely reached that of a hard fought pre-season friendly.
On my way home I reflected on what this could mean for the future of the game. Could this pave the way for the "B" team system I feel so strongly against? Quite frankly the game is already setup to benefit the rich and powerful enough as it is without removing a lower league club’s only shot at glory as well.
So, despite having a good day out and a few beers with my mates, despite seeing the 6’4 German dreamboat that is Jan Kirchhoff, I sit typing this feeling a sense of regret for going to watch my team play. Words I never thought I would type.
To some this sentiment may seem over the top but having witnessed first-hand the damage these kind of competitions could have to the prospects of lower league clubs up and down the country I do feel a sense of moral responsibility to back their cause.
I hope this competition will be seen for the disorganised failure that it is and lower league clubs can have their trophy back as of next season.