The English Football League Trophy, or as it is currently known, the Papa John’s Trophy, has long split opinion with many supporters wanting to see it scrapped. Whilst some of the arguments against it are valid, however, progress for Sunderland in this season’s tournament isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Since the club came into League One and were required to enter the competition as a first team several young players have been given opportunities in the side that they might not have otherwise got. Anthony Patterson, Ollie Younger and Josh Hawkes have all played a part in more senior competitions since making their debut in the Trophy last season, whilst we are currently seeing the benefits of Dan Neil’s carefully plotted progression after he made his bow in a 2018 tie at Morecambe.
The steppingstone between age restricted competition and fully fledged league or cup matches that the Trophy provides allows younger players with the chance to judge where they are and determine which areas of their game need improving.
Not every Academy of Light prospect or member of the U23s side will make it at Sunderland, of course, but perhaps it is better to find that out in this less pressured environment than when points are on the line, with those unable to establish themselves here also having a better chance of getting fixed up elsewhere if they have had some experience of senior football.
Established players can also benefit from Sunderland going deep into the tournament. It is widely felt that the club have plenty of strength in depth at present but if that is to be utilised, squad members have to be able to get minutes into their legs so that they are ready to come into the first choice eleven at short notice.
Injuries such as the one suffered by Luke O’Nien last Tuesday are just as likely to occur in training, but players returning from injury, like Denver Hume currently is, will get match sharp much quicker from these run outs than if they were simply doing gym sessions and the like.
There has been a suggestion that the additional games brought about by a cup run can lead to fatigue that impacts on league form later in the season. Whilst that may be true to a point, it should be noted that of the three seasons before this one that Sunderland have been in League One, the only time they didn’t go all the way to the Trophy final was also the only time they couldn’t make the Play-Offs. Admittedly, that point is slightly skewed by the way the 2019-20 campaign ended, but it is also the case that the one occasion Sunderland have been promoted from this level back in 1987-88 they had also managed to go beyond the group stage of what was then called the Sherpa Van Trophy.
Lee Johnson and his coaching staff have, so far got, the balance right when selecting sides that need to be competitive but also allow chances to those on the fringes. They are working hard to try and change the mentality at the club also; games should be seen as an opportunity, not a chore, and the winning habit is a good one to have.
A victory, no matter what the circumstances, helps morale and breaking the Wembley ‘hoodoo’ against Tranmere Rovers last season was an important move towards getting rid of the ‘typical Sunlun’ image that sometimes prevails.
Fans too can benefit from Sunderland doing well in the Trophy, if they want to. It is understandable that those with other commitments, or have to travel excessive distances, might see these fixtures as one or two too many but for others, the halfway house nature of earlier kick offs and smaller crowds mean they can be a less stressful trip to the footy or an ideal chance to bring younger supporters along.
From a personal point of view, I am more a Sunderland fan than a general football fan and will take the opportunity to watch a live match featuring the club I love over some televised game between sides I have no interest in any day of the week.
Not only is it encouraging to see players progress, the trip to Wembley for the 2019 final was a great day out, and winning it last season during a period of lockdown and concerns over the health of loved ones and job security was a big boost to many.
Up until this season, entry into Trophy games at the Stadium of Light was only a couple of quid. Prices for the fixture against Manchester United’s U21s on Wednesday night have been increased, but they still represent a saving on admission prices for league games and may therefore provide an opportunity for somebody on a tighter budget to get a game in.
Of course, not everything about being in the competition is ideal and many supporters feel it is a bit of an ignominy that Sunderland are even in it. Certainly, sitting in a near empty Stadium of Light watching us play Stoke City U21s following our relegation from the Championship in 2018 brought about a stark realisation of just how far we had fallen, given the fact that two years earlier I had been at the same ground watching our own U21s beat Notts County in the group stages.
It is perhaps hypocritical that I was there for the win against County as I feel having Category One Premier League and Championship ‘B’ sides in the tournament sets a dangerous precedent for the football pyramid and gives the competition an imbalanced feel, particularly now that the invited sides can only play away from home. It was probably that love of Sunderland above all else that encouraged me to go but I certainly appreciate why clubs that are not expected to be in the higher divisions would resent it, and why they would have little sympathy for me when I say the utterly dismal defeat against Leicester City’s U21s in this tournament ranks as one of the worst nights I have ever spent following the Lads.
The competition is further devalued by some of the flawed selection and suspension rules imposed on clubs, and it feels bizarre that all of the other fixtures in Group F this season have been completed before Sunderland had even played one – an issue not helped by this Wednesday’s game only being confirmed last week. Things are further devalued by the string of name changes – current sponsors Papa John’s didn’t even come on board last season until well after the competition had started.
The Leicester game, in which season card holders were rather shamefully told they could attend for free in lieu of a refund to reflect the fact the league fixture against Bury had been cancelled, saw a dreadful performance at a time when supporters were beginning to question the direction the club was being taken in by owners Madrox. There are questions too about the way the competition is being ran, and many would like to see it being overhauled and becoming more innovative.
Concerns about young academy players not experiencing enough senior football would be better addressed in other ways, but the decision to take drawn group games to penalties was an interesting move and perhaps the Trophy could be used to test similar changes that are have been mooted such as rolling subs.
Sunderland AFC seem to be in a very different place to where they were the last time we were able to watch a home tie in this competition in person, which was for that Leicester game in November 2019.
With any luck we will not have to worry about the Trophy next season, or not as a first team entrant anyway, but for now I will enjoy the games we do have in the competition and feel there is some worth in them for the club too.