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Sunderland v Aston Villa U21: EFL Trophy

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On This Day (8 Sept 2020): What a difference a year makes!

We beat Villa’s kids 8-1 on this day last year. We’re not going to ‘celebrate’ that result though – merely acknowledge just how far we’ve come in a year.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Usually, when I’m writing these features, I have an overwhelming feeling along the lines of ‘it can’t be 25 years since that happened’.

For example, it’s coming up to 30 years ago that Marco Gabbiadini left Sunderland for Palace, Denis Smith was sacked and we reached the FA Cup Final. I remember it all as if it were yesterday.

Occasionally, however, something crops up and it stuns you that it actually wasn’t that long ago, such is the seismic change that’s occurred in the time between then and now.

Today’s ‘On This Day’ is a brilliant example, because it’s just one year – yes, 12 months, 365 days – since we beat Aston Villa’s under-five team 8-1 at the Stadium of Light.

The season ‘proper’ hadn’t started yet, thanks to COVID, but we’d played one competitive game a few days earlier, at home to divisional rivals Hull in the League Cup. A goalless draw saw us knocked out on penalties, and we wondered if we had enough firepower in the team to get us up.

“Fear not!” said Phil Parkinson, who spent all of 10 seconds thinking about players he knew and brought in Danny Graham for a Sunderland second coming the day before the game.

Graham, resplendent in compression shorts (the sartorial shorthand for ‘unfit’) and donning some spectacular flowing locks, was on the bench as Remi Matthews, Morgan Feeney and Arbenit Xhemajli were all given debuts in a 3-4-1-1 formation, which saw Diamond and Gooch deployed as wingbacks, and Josh Scowen in behind Charlie Wyke (remember the days that Parkinson believed Scowen was Maguire’s attacking midfield understudy?).

Sunderland v Aston Villa U21: EFL Trophy
Dan Neil was given his first professional start a year ago today
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Parkinson’s pre-season rhetoric about giving youth a chance (a justification for Aiden McGeady’s exclusion) seemed to be playing out on the field, too, with Brandon Taylor, Morgan Feeney, Jack Diamond and Dan Neil all being given opportunities – and for Neil, it was his first senior start.

Sunderland: Matthews, Taylor, Feeney, Xhemajli, Diamond, Power, Leadbitter, Neil, Gooch, Scowen, Wyke. Subs: Burge, Hume, Flanagan, Dobson, Maguire, O’Brien, Graham.

The game itself is memorable in that it’s the first – and only – time we’ve scored eight goals at the Stadium of Light. Indeed, it was the first time we’d scored eight since 1956.

It was Charlie Wyke who struck first, heading in Josh Scowen’s corner after quarter of an hour. Morgan Feeney almost doubled the lead from another Scowen corner moments later, and successfully did so shortly afterwards.

Feeney, a close-season signing from Everton, impressed during the game. He arrived with a strong reputation at Goodison Park but was unfortunately hampered by injury during his short spell at Sunderland, and departed for Carlisle in the January window. Feeney was troubled by injury during last season at Brunton Park too, but has been in and around the team this season, and is a player I wouldn’t be surprised to see come back up through the leagues sooner rather than later.

Sunderland v Aston Villa U21: EFL Trophy
Feeney heads home another Scowen corner
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I digress. After missing a handful of chances, Sunderland handed Villa a route back into the game from the spot shortly after half time – Taylor tripped Chukwuemeka and Vassilev beat debutant Remi Matthews to make it 2-1.

Another Josh Scowen corner was headed back across goal by Feeney for Wyke to get his second of the game, and Wyke almost scored his hattrick from yet another Scowen corner, heading narrowly wide.

Again, it seems like a lifetime ago, but I was genuinely excited about Josh Scowen after this game – his corner taking was next level and Parkinson’s talk of him being a more attacking player than we maybe thought seemed to have merit. And it was Scowen who got Sunderland’s fourth with 15 minutes left, finishing after Gooch’s cross was knocked down by another new signing, Aiden O’Brien.

Sunderland showed a credible relentlessness, which gave some - ultimately misplaced - hope as we headed into the season proper. Rather than play out the game at 4-1, we really put Villa to the sword in the final stages: Max Power, Danny Graham, George Dobson and Aiden O’Brien netting to seal an 8-1 win.

Sunderland v Aston Villa U21: EFL Trophy
Photographic evidence of Danny Graham scoring at the SOL
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Of the 18 players who played a year ago today, only six players are left at the club this season – a seventh, Jack Diamond, has of course left on loan.

The season proper started a few days later, and only eight players remain from the 18-man squad that was named that day, as we reverted to type and only salvaged a draw against Bristol Rovers thanks to Chris Maguire’s late goal to save the game. Will Grigg started up front, and Danny Graham was the preferred option from the bench ahead of Charlie Wyke.

It’s quite a remarkable turnaround in 12 months really, isn’t it? A new manager, new ownership, and a vastly changed squad (despite continual moans about the lack of transfer activity in pre-season).

I know we’ve not achieved anything so far this season, and in fact we’ve only made a start that is in line with every other start we’ve made to a League One season, but it seems as if it’s a different world – certainly a world away from Phil Parkinson managing the team under Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven.

And long may that continue.


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