Both Aiden O’Brien and Jordan Jones failed late fitness tests, so were unable to start in the Papa John’s Trophy final, with Lynden Gooch and Chris Maguire taking their places at Wembley. Those two were part of the four changes that Lee Johnson made after Tuesday night’s 2-0 victory over Portsmouth at Fratton Park. Dion Sanderson and Carl Winchester were both cup-tied, so had to watch on from the stands, as Tom Flanagan and Grant Leadbitter returned to the starting XI. Luke O’Nien continued to play an impressive role in the backline, with Max Power starting against his former club in the right-back role.
First Half Action
No team gained attacking control of the opening stages of the match, but Sunderland enjoyed more possession and converted that into a composed start to the final at Wembley, whilst Tranmere used their impressive form heading into this match to try and cause Sunderland a threat.
There were a couple of scares early doors for the Black Cats, as both Danny Lloyd and Grant Leadbitter challenged for the ball inside of the penalty area, with it looping back towards Lee Burge’s goal. The Sunderland goalkeeper had originally caught the ball, but an uncomfortable landing had Burge scrapping to reclaim it.
It took a while for the Black Cats to create an attacking impulse, with a sloppy ball from the visitors dropping to Chris Maguire, whose left-footed shot being aimed wide of the left post.
Maguire was attempting to stake a claim to push his name ahead of Jordan Jones in the starting 11, and was aiming to open the scoring, as his deflected shot from just outside of the 18-yard box was rolled past the left post.
The Black Cats’ best chance of the first half came just before the interval, as Maguire cut into the 18-yard box was blocked at the first attempt, but dropped for the Scotsman again, as he slipped the ball back to McGeady. Unfortunately for the Black Cats, Maguire’s cut-back alluded McGeady - summing up the first half at Wembley, as neither side were able to produce the finishing touch.
The injury to Tom Flanagan had Lee Johnson scratching his head with his defensive crisis increasing, as Conor McLaughlin was forced into the centre-back role, alongside Luke O’Nien, just before the interval.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 0-0 Tranmere Rovers
Second Half Action
Tranmere stepped the tempo up after the break as they looked to pose more of a threat onto the Sunderland backline. Their big chance came on 47 as Otis Khan skipped past Luke O’Nien and unleashed his shot, but it was powered against the gloves of Lee Burge.
As the second half progressed, more space appeared in both of the backline as the sides searched for the opener, with McGeady’s low cross being sent across the face of goal but Wyke unable to find the finish to put Sunderland into a one-goal lead.
That lead was soon established though, as Sunderland cut the Tranmere backline open in an instant as McGeady slipped the ball through to Gooch, whose run into the penalty area on the Wembley turf must have felt a lifetime, but he found the finish as he lifted the ball over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net.
Sunderland led at Wembley.
The task for Sunderland was to hold onto that lead, in order to claim their first Wembley win since 1973, with the Black Cats undergoing a period of pressure of crosses into the penalty area from Keith Hill’s side.
Some Tranmere fans may have found it unjustified how their side didn’t at least score once at Wembley, as Corey Blackett-Taylor wriggled past both Max Power and Jack Diamond, and drove into the penalty area, before powering his shot into the midriff of Lee Burge.
A succession of corners from both the left and the right did cause Sunderland a couple of scurrying problems in defence, but for the most part, they were able to deal with them in flying colours, but the introduction of David Nugent did cause some issues for the defence but O’Nien impressed again to put his body on the line for the Black Cats.
Lee Johnson’s side did have chances to extend their lead and make the final moments of the match less nervy, as a short corner found McGeady, who swivelled inside, before his dink into the area was flicked on by Conor McLaughlin. The first half substitute sent the ball goalwards, but it was tipped onto the bar by Scott Davies in the Tranmere goal.
Despite a nervy injury time, the final whistle signified a massive moment in Sunderland’s season and history, as Sunderland finally won at Wembley.
Try telling yourself that again: Sunderland won at Wembley.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 1-0 Tranmere Rovers
Of course it had to be this moment, behind closed doors. Still very few Sunderland fans have witnessed first-hand Sunderland win at Wembley since 1973, but Sunderland have finally done it.
We have won a cup final at Wembley.
There will be a section of the supporters that may only claim that it was the Papa John’s Trophy (formally the EFL Trophy), but nevertheless, it is a trophy that will go in Sunderland’s cabinet, and it is looking like it will be the start of something absolutely mesmerising.
It was the first piece of silverware that has been won under the Kyril Louis-Dreyfus helm, with the Sky Sports coverage showing just what it means for the Black Cats, and the trophy lift felt like a massive weight being taken off the players’ shoulders, with the Wembley hoodoo finally broken.
Yes, it wasn’t the most eye-catching performance of the season, against a League Two side, and if it wasn’t for Gooch’s goal, it may have been a different story, but at the end of the day, Sunderland have won a trophy at Wembley.
Tranmere showed why they are in amongst the promotion race in League Two, and showed why they should gain promotion back into League One, as they were at the heart of the PPG crisis last season.
In the end, Keith Hill’s side lacked the attacking touch, as they had the pace and creativeness to trouble the Sunderland defence, but on no occasions did they actually fully open the door to fully test Lee Burge.
The only difference between the two sides was the quality that Sunderland posed in the final third of the Wembley pitch, with McGeady’s pass for Gooch’s finish proving to be the thing that separated the two sides.
But, in the big games, it is the quality that stands out, and the quality that will win the trophies, and so it proved for Lee Johnson and his side.
Some players are proving to produce quality in areas of the pitch, that you wouldn’t have expected at the beginning of the season. For example, two Sky Sports Man of the Match awards in a week for Luke O’Nien from Lee Hendrie on commentary duty tells the full story; his composure and quality in the backline was something well-noted on Sunday afternoon.
The major focus at the full-time whistle in the interviews with Sky Sports was how the focus now turns to the promotion race in League One, and how yesterday could be the catalyst in the push for automatic promotion.
It is a huge week for the Black Cats, as they head to the Wham Stadium to face Accrington Stanley, before a promotion six-pointer at the Stadium of Light against Lincoln City.
Dion Sanderson will most likely come back into the defensive line, alongside Luke O’Nien, with Carl Winchester perhaps coming back into the midfield ahead of Grant Leadbitter, whose shoulder problem may give him a match break as he was playing through the “pain barrier” on Sunday afternoon.
Although Wednesday’s and Saturday’s matches are of the utmost importance, do allow the fact that Sunderland have won at Wembley to sink in.