Sunderland’s 2020/2021 league campaign may have been somewhat unconvincing and downright frustrating at times, but our form in the EFL Trophy has been a welcome break from the grind of the league, and on another mud-bath of a pitch at Stadium MK, Lee Johnson’s team held their nerve to secure a semi-final berth, and keep our hopes of a curse-breaking trip to Wembley very much alive.
After the sub-plots of transfer deadline day, not least the welcome departure of Will Grigg on loan to the Dons, it was time for us to get back down to business as we tackled the first of two games against Russell Martin’s team this week.
It was clear from the team sheet that Johnson was striving for victory: Luke O’Nien, Lynden Gooch and Rangers loanee Jordan Jones were all given starts in what felt like a very attack-minded eleven, and Johnson opted for the much-maligned Remi Matthews between the sticks, perhaps hoping that this was the chance for the shot-stopper to regain some confidence after several shaky displays this season.
Sunderland’s intensity levels and attitude were on the money from the first whistle, as we chased, hustled and harried MK Dons with an aggressive pressing approach. Flanagan and Willis kept things tight at the back, Gooch and Diamond were buzzing around in dangerous areas, always seeking openings and trying to stretch the home defence, and Jones drove forward with the ball at his feet at every opportunity.
Sunderland’s lack of pace in forward areas has been both a running joke and a source of major frustration for a long time, but hopefully Johnson has gone some way to addressing that with his January signings.
Sadly, O’Nien’s midfield cameo was all too brief, as he found himself shunted into defence following the injury-enforced departure of Callum McFadzean. O’Nien has often divided opinion during his time on Wearside, but his sense of team ethics and his willingness to cover different positions when called upon should be applauded.
Attitude is key for players in this league, and O’Nien’s is consistently superb.
He is the ultimate ‘jack of all trades’ footballer.
It was Diamond who broke the deadlock, latching onto a neat pass from Gooch and sending a shot towards the goal that deflected in off defender Dean Lewington for a deserved, if slightly fortunate, Sunderland lead. Question marks may remain about whether Diamond is more effective as an option from the bench, but he is certainly one of our key attacking weapons, and he continues to show positive signs of improvement.
1-0 at the break, and although we hadn’t kicked on after the early goal, you got the sense that we were exactly where we wanted to be, and that the plan was being executed extremely well.
The second half, in contrast to the first, was slightly more cagey, as MK Dons were able to get a more secure foothold in the game, and we weren’t quite able to grab that anxiety-easing second goal, despite playing some good football and maintaining an impressive level of energy. Nevertheless, we didn’t panic, and our game management was of a far higher standard than it has been in recent games.
Sixty minutes in, and in what felt like a very daring move, Johnson opted to empty his bench and make a quadruple substitution, bringing on Oliver Younger, Charlie Wyke, Grant Leadbitter, and Aiden McGeady.
If Phil Parkinson was often criticised for not using his subs until it was too late, Johnson opted to send the cavalry on, despite the need to keep players fresh for the upcoming league games. Perhaps another sign of how seriously he is taking this competition? You could certainly say so.
Two quick-fire goals towards the end of the second half ultimately secured the game for the Black Cats. First, a well-struck shot from McGeady squirmed beyond the grasp of Lee Nicholls in the home goal, and then a header from Wyke, from a Leadbitter cross, nestled into the bottom corner to put a comprehensive tint on the scoreline, and keep the rejuvenated striker among the goals.
Progress secured, and we can now turn our attention to the league fixture against the same team on Saturday. Was this trophy our main priority this season? No. Should we play to win it? Absolutely.
Make no mistake: lifting the trophy would give everyone- players, staff, and fans, a welcome boost, and even if we fall short in our quest for promotion, ending the season with something in the trophy cabinet would certainly be something worth celebrating.