It goes without saying that, whatever the result of the game, Sunderland’s trip to Wembley at the end of this month to take part in the EFL Trophy Final will act as a significant marker for Sunderland’s ‘new era’, both on and off the pitch.
For a club who for so many years had became accustomed to losing it’s a big step in the right direction, regardless of what you think of the EFL Trophy and what partaking in it signifies on a larger scale.
Sunderland should, regardless of the competition, bullishly aim to emerge victorious in every single game of football that they play in. Failure was largely accepted by those in a position of power in the past, but under the wing of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and co. there’s been a clear directive that we have to start acting like a big club should we ever want to be successful over a sustained period of time.
That attitude has been prevalent since the first day that Sunderland’s new owners stepped through the door, and it has continued along at pace ever since.
Whilst we’re not currently occupying an automatic promotion spot we’ve certainly not let ourselves down, and the fact that we’ve lost just twice in League One action this season - and remain unbeaten in the third tier in 2019 - is a clear sign that we’re very quickly ridding ourselves of the losing mentality that plagued our club and became accepted by just about everyone involved for such a long time when Ellis Short was the man at the top of the tree.
And, as hordes of excited Mackems stride gallantly into the nation’s capital on the weekend of the final, we should remind ourselves of the journey that we’ve been on.
Sunderland, performing in the final of ANY competition, is something that should fill us with immense pride in not only what we are, but who we are.
And the men who have taken us this far should all be proud of what they’ve been able to achieve. One of the more refreshing aspects of Sunderland’s overnight change from perennial losers to focused winners has been the fact that so many members of the current squad are either local lads or players who have graduated in to the first team via the club’s academy.
For them, the day will be just as special as it is to the supporters in the stands. Not only do they get to enjoy the fact that Sunderland are taking part in a Wembley final, but they themselves hold the keys to us achieving success on the day. And with that carrot dangled in front of them, you can bet they’ll give every last drop in order to ensure THEIR people return back to the motherland with a gleaming piece of Silverware in tow.
Can you even begin to wrap your head around just how unbelievable that must feel?
Knowing that you, a proud representative of the region, has the opportunity to step out wearing red and white in front of forty-odd thousand Mackems who are each screaming the place down as you stride across the turf - there cannot be many better ways to play and enjoy professional football than to represent YOUR club on such a momentous stage.
For lads who grew up dreaming of one day representing Sunderland, it’s not only an honour and a privilege but something that gives credence to all the hours spent on the training pitch across your life in order to work yourself into a position whereby you are afforded chances like this to bring happiness and glory to the entirety of Wearside.
Denver Hume, George Honeyman, Lee Cattermole, Grant Leadbitter and Lynden Gooch will all be itching to start the game, by hook or by crook. For three of those men - the midfield trio that have seemingly became the favoured grouping of Jack Ross in the centre of the park - their places in our cup final team are practically guaranteed, but for Hume and Gooch the decision to give them the nod ahead of others in their position is a difficult one for Sunderland manager Jack Ross. And, in fairness, I can completely sympathise.
Reece James is the first choice left back in Sunderland’s side, but his recent struggles with both form and fitness mean an opportunity to give Hume the nod in order to proudly represent his club on such a massive occasion is right in front of Ross’ face.
Lynden Gooch - like Hume, a product of Sunderland’s academy who has been with the club since he was a child - has struggled recently to impress in the way that he had been able to earlier in the season, an issue compounded by the fact Ross elected in January to sign his most successful product, Celtic winger Lewis Morgan.
Who gets the nod on the right hand side it’s entirely up for debate, but knowing just how much playing in this game will mean to someone like Gooch, I’d hope Ross will elect to select the American over the just as out-of-form Morgan.
Perhaps my heart rules my head with the thinking here, but I’d love nothing more than to see a team largely made up with ‘Sunderland lads’ do the business on cup final day. For an occasion such as this one, nothing would please me more than to see them leave every ounce of blood, sweat and tears out there on the field as we celebrate winning the Trophy.
Regardless of what this competition actually is - and how its legitimacy is regarded in wider footballing circles - that, in my own mind, is about as close to perfection as it gets.