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OPINION: Sunderland MUST take their participation in the Checkatrade Trophy seriously!

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With the opportunity of a trophy and a trip to Wembley on offer, all involved with Sunderland AFC should embrace what a good cup run in the Checkatrade Trophy could bring to us next season.

Shrewsbury Town v Lincoln City - Checkatrade Trophy Final Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

Relegation to the third tier not only changes what level of league football we’ll be playing in next season but also changes our stance with regards cup competitions - one of which is the Checkatrade Trophy, a tournament which has come under heavy criticism from fans of sides in League One and Two.

This week we found out which other Football League teams we’ll be facing next season because, unlike in the previous two campaigns, Sunderland won’t be entered as an U23 side.

Instead, we’ll be down to play our first team against Carlisle United, Morecambe and Stoke City U21s.

Sunderland should look to take this competition seriously, though, as the two finals since the new structure was introduced have featured third and fourth tier sides, with the winners being from League Two.

As a Premier League side we didn’t exactly set the competition alight. In 2016/17 we were knocked out on penalties at the hands of Wolverhampton Wanderers, and the following season we picked up just one point from three group games against Scunthorpe, Doncaster and Notts County. Ironically, all three of these sides will be league opposition in the coming season, and this time round we’ll be playing sides even more determined to beat us.

The Checkatrade trophy has been criticized heavily by many fans of lower league sides, and they have a strong argument. The tournament can be seen to make a mockery of a tournament which used to be very popular with League One and Two sides.

Coventry City v Oxford United - EFL Checkatrade Trophy Final Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

I was sceptical of the tournament as it seemed a move to make sure more Premier League clubs, albeit youth sides, made it to a cup final.

It’s a relief that the first two winners of the revised Football League trophy are teams who played in the original format; the competition was made to help lower league sides get to Wembley, and that so far hasn’t changed.

The protests from fans took the form of staying away from matches. In the first round of the tournament in 2016, the average attendance was just 1,426. The B Team Boycott has continued throughout the tournament, but the first season showed that the new version of the tournament would end up looking none too dissimilar to previous seasons.

Out of the 16 invited academy teams, only seven made it out of the groups and only one made it to the quarter finals; once Swansea were knocked out by Coventry then it was an all first-team affair.

Most of our fans stayed away too, and in the one match we’ve played at the Stadium of Light in this competition less than 700 people came through the turnstiles. Whether this was a genuine protest or merely a lack of interest remains to be seen, but these lower attendances can be expected unless we make it into the latter rounds and edge towards a return to Wembley.

Shrewsbury Town v Lincoln City - Checkatrade Trophy Final
Last season’s final was a brilliant game.
Photo by James Chance/Getty Images

And that’s exactly what we should be going for. The newly formatted Checkatrade trophy is insulting to those sides in League One and Two.

Now that we are one of them we should be doing all we can to help show that this competition, which celebrates its 35th birthday this year, is a competition won and owned by the first team sides of clubs in the bottom two rungs of the footballing ladder.

The incentive of getting a trophy in the cabinet should be enough for any of the players we bring through the door this summer. It can be an exciting competition, and it’s one which we should take as seriously as possible.

This is a chance for the club to build momentum and show that we are starting to move back in the right direction - and I can’t imagine many fans would turn up their noses at having the opportunity to watch the Lads win a trophy at Wembley.