Ever since we dropped into League One, the question that keeps on creeping to the fore whenever Sunderland play in a cup tie (or some variation of it, at least) is “do they really need the additional distraction of cup competitions in another pivotal season?
And each year, the same mixed replies come back - yes, as it helps the flow of momentum from the league; or no, it adds too many games to an already crammed calendar.
This season more than ever it will add more games to an already stacked calendar for a squad that appears thin on the ground, but if anything, Tuesday’s EFL Cup first-round victory showed just why Sunderland should use the cups to our advantage.
The lack of transfer activity going on has hung over the club since the first day of pre-season, with more and more of our youngsters having to plug the gaps and take up spots in the first team that might otherwise have been occupied by experienced campaigners.
Players like Josh Hawkes, Oliver Younger and Dan Neil are going to be required to make the leap up to the first-team on a regular basis this season, with games in pre-season and cup matches aiding their development, and status within the squad.
We’ve already seen that our best youngsters have featured heavily during pre-season and in the past two competitive matches - whether that will change with the start of Premier League 2 next week, we will have to wait and see.
But, if anything, against Port Vale they proved their worth to Lee Johnson, who now will surely be considering some of these players as proper first-teamers.
Yes, they may have picked up yellow cards through lack of experience, and yes, the game on Tuesday may have only been against League Two side in Port Vale, but these young players showed just what they can bring to the squad - proving that they’re more than adequate additions to the squad, with the ability to cover for key first-team figures should they be called upon as the season progresses, and issues are undoubtedly encountered.
And it was one of the youngsters who proved instrumental in Tuesday night’s win, with former Hartlepool attacking midfielder Josh Hawkes netting the first goal and coming close with a number of other well-placed efforts.
There’s always a possibility that players like McGeady will pick up injuries, or that other forwards like Will Grigg could leave before the end of the window, and Hawkes is just one of the players that fans will be likely to witness as the season rumbles on.
For now, though, Hawkes and the rest of the squad will be focusing on the trip to Milton Keynes at the weekend. It’s game two of 46 in League One this season, and quite often in the past we’ve enjoyed success at Stadium:MK, so we can only hope that our momentum continues - and you never know, some of our youngsters may well feature and capitalise on the good performances that we’ve seen since the start of pre-season.
Players like Hawkes have now emerged as genuine contenders - proving that if fringe players take advantage of the minutes afforded to them in these cup games, the games themselves are more than worthwhile, and perhaps more important to our season than some folk might think.