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Sunderland v Manchester United U21 - Papa John’s Trophy

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“Play the kids - even if it means getting a fine!”

Jack Shields thinks that tonight’s game should be used to give our U23s game-time, and nothing more - even if it means that we’re forced to stump up for a fine from the EFL.

Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

The Pizza Cup... Pizza Trophy... Papa Johns... whatever you want to call it, is back on the agenda tonight as League Two strugglers Oldham Athletic visit the Stadium of Light.

Though I appreciate some may disagree with me, I have to be honest... I’m not a huge fan of the tournament as a whole.

It’s not that I don’t want to win these games - I do, it’s just any time they come round I tend to just want them out of the way before trying to resume the league campaign.

For me, being in tournaments like this is an unfortunate and painful reminder of the level we are at and at the risk of sounding like an uber-arrogant ‘typical’ Sunderland fan - it makes me feel a bit sick.

Then there’s the lack of fans at the Stadium of Light, the poor atmosphere matches at times. the low intensity of the games and strange rules (penalties after a draw in a league tournament) make it a strange tournament that doesn’t command much respect or attention.

Sunderland v Bradford City - EFL Trophy Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I understand why fans enjoy a trip to Wembley. Something about taking thousands to the capital and seeing your team victorious validates what being a supporter is all about.

Not only that, but our injury list is starting to steadily build on us. You look at the likes of Aiden McGeady, Luke O’Nien, Niall Huggins, Denver Hume, Jordan Willis, and a knock to Corry Evans... it’s quite a portion of our squad.

The only positive we can take from this is that it’s a perfect opportunity to play the younger players - and only the younger players.

I know Lee Johnson may get fined or penalised for this, but it suits all parties involved, doesn’t it? We get to carefully protect our depleted squad and some of the developing players get valuable first-team experience and a chance to push the first-teamers, and even come into regular contention for league matches.

The likes of Tyrese Dyce at full-back is an option. The youngster has featured before and looked solid if unspectacular when called upon. He’s also got a better chance of first-team action with regular players such as the aforementioned Hume and Huggins both injured.

Sunderland v Newcastle United: Premier League 2 Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The attacking pair of Stephen Wearne and Will Harris should both feature against Oldham. Both have looked impressive in spells against predominantly lower league opposition - Wearne scoring against Lincoln City. Wrapping Ross Stewart in cotton wool should be the main aim but the likes of Harris and Wearne need to be as prepared as can be should they need to be more regularly called upon.

Ollie Younger is another player with a lot of potential. His calmness and composure both with and without the ball make a mockery of his young age and he will surely develop both technically and physically to challenge the regular centre-backs at the club.

Of course, the decision is with Lee Johnson. I suspect he will perhaps play a mix of experience and youngsters on the fringes. Not just to avoid the fine but to try and win the game obviously. I think, whatever happens, it is of critical importance we manage our squad and avoid further injuries.

I will never be a fan of this tournament but the more opportunities we give to players breaking through, the better.

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