Two years since the lads’ last whimpered at Wembley and we returned to the capital once again. Last time around it was predominantly a story of severe heart-ache, from penalty-shoot out play up against Pompey to last gasp gloom against Charlton. So close, yet so far was the general consensus as our catastrophic record at Wembley continued.
However, this time around it was different. Sunderland were major favourites against League 2 outfit Tranmere Rovers in the 2021 Papa John’s Trophy Final. Of course, this came with a downside as supporting Sunderland always does. The catch was that no supporters would be allowed in the ground to watch the match from the stands due to the ongoing battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
This most certainly leaves a sour taste in the mouth of many Mackems, but could it also help take the pressure off the players to perform on the big stage?
Rather fortunately, this cup final arrives as the lads are in a rich vein of form as of late. In our previous seven league matches prior to the final we have won 6 and drawn 1, with some tremendous individual performances along the way. This is particularly impressive due to our injury struggles, which are most damaging in defence. The likes of Bailey Wright, Jordan Willis and Denver Hume are all on the treatment table. Of course, this has also given the likes of Luke O’Nien and Max Power the opportunity to demonstrate their versatility and commitment to fight for the badge.
The most significant renaissance of the 20/21 season, by some margin in fact, is almost definitely the general improvement In performances in conjunction with the major increase in goal contributions of our number 9. Charlie Wyke had been made somewhat of a scapegoat during his previous two seasons on Wearside and deservedly so due to his abysmal goal record. However, he has been a shining light so far this campaign with 21 league goals in just 31 appearances.
Due to this, there is a large expectation weighing on his shoulders to perform in a similar fashion in such a pivotal game. Can he live up to expectations?
Eventually, the game arrived. Sunday 14th March 2021, or Cup Final day. No Trafalgar takeover and no sea of red and white, though thousands watched on from their front rooms. The lads were out on the pitch, the match was moments away...
Tranmere Rovers might have been filled with slightly more confidence than usual having watched League Two side Salford beat Pompey in the same competition just one day earlier. However, they would be without their star man, James Vaughan, due to injury. The striker had a pretty lacklustre spell on Wearside in the Championship but I’m sure many would have put their houses on him netting against us had he been available for selection.
As for the Sunderland team news, there were a few key players that were unavailable due to being cup tied. The obvious of these was Dion Sanderson, who is currently on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers. Sanderson has been superb for Sunderland, particularly in a time when so many key names are out of action.
He was bound to be a big miss in this fixture. The likes of Carl Winchester, Jake Vokins, Aiden O’Brien and Jordan Jones all also missed out of the final. On a more positive note, Grant Leadbitter returned and was selected to start and Conor McLaughlin was also back in the matchday squad. January acquisition Ross Stewart also returned from injury, and was named as a substitute for the first time since his arrival on Wearside.
The clock struck 3PM and the match commenced under the infamous Wembley arch, as thousands eagerly watched on from their homes. It was inevitable that Tranmere would produce a stern test - after all, they had already knocked Oxford and Peterborough out of the competition.
Lee Burge was forced into action for the first time on fifteen minutes after a relatively nervy start to the game. The ball looped up off Grant Leadbitter as Burge back-peddled expertly to prevent the ball from crossing the Sunderland goal line.
Not long after, Chris Maguire combined with Lynden Gooch at the opposite end before dragging his shot inches wide of the post. Chris Maguire had another sniff of goal as his shot deflected off former Liverpool midfielder Jay Spearing before rolling past the post. It was former Tranmere man Max Power who came close from the resulting corner, as he failed to head home from close range. The final exchange of action from the first half saw the injured Tom Flanagan be replaced by Northern Ireland international Conor McLaughlin.
Tranmere will have been raring to go for the second half as Keith Hill’s side saw a lot of possession in the first forty-five. As for Sunderland, they would also be keen to get going quickly due to having a fairly youthful bench. Tranmere were let off the hook once again as the man in form, Charlie Wyke, was unable to make any real connection with Aiden McGeady’s dangerous delivery. Just six minutes later Sunderland cut straight through the middle of the Tranmere defence after a brilliant threaded through ball from Aiden Mcgeady. Lynden Gooch was able to remain calm before firing his effort straight past Scott Davies. The final moments were tense though Sunderland were able to hold on to win the game 1-0.
Forty-eight years since Ian Porterfield’s goal shocked Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup, forty-eight years since that unbelievable double save from Jimmy Montgomery. Sunderland finally had their hands on silverware once again, albeit the EFL Trophy.
It’s an incredible success for the football club and an excellent start to life under the ownership of Kyril-Louis Dreyfus. Now all eyes turn to the League One table as Sunderland charge for the automatic promotion places.
Can they return to the Championship at the third time of asking?