Is it just me, or has it been a long year? It seems like an age ago that, locked out of grounds due to Covid-19 public health restrictions, Sunderland beat Tranmere 1-0 to lift the EFL Trophy.
I’m not a fan of the competition myself, the fact that Premier League U23 teams take part is demeaning to the fully-fledged pros who regularly batter them, and it's a wedge for those who would argue for their B teams to take part in the EFL itself one day.
It is played in quarter-full stadiums and is squeezed into an already packed fixture schedule. Twice in four-season Sunderland have reached the final, and twice it has proven a tiring distraction from the main task of getting promotion only adds to my sense that, however nice it is to have finally won something it’s a monumental waste of time.
Of course, I want Sunderland to win every game they play and celebrated when we picked up the Trophy, but the lack of supporters in the ground and my general “meh” feeling around the whole pantomime mean it hardly features as a highlight in my 30-odd years of following the Lads.
But one lovely memory does endure from the 2020-21 Papa John’s Trophy Final, and that’s the fantastic “virtual ticket” sale that raised over £170,000 for four local charities, and around £50,000 for community groups on the Wirral too.
First proposed on a message board by Peter Richardson, who had previously written “The Rejected Manager” book about his attempts to get shortlisted for managerial vacancies in the game, the idea was picked up by the fan groups Red & White Army, the Sunderland Senior Supporters Association and Sunderland AFC Branch Liaison Council (BLC) and the campaign was conducted under the #SunderlandTogether banner. The Salvation Army, Sunderland Foodbank, Washington Mind, and the Foundation of Light all benefitted from the 10,000 or so commemorative tickets that were sold.
Richardson was rightly rewarded for his charity efforts by being invited to the match as the club’s guest of honour at Wembley, the only Sunderland supporter to witness their club win at the national stadium in almost half a century.
WOW WOW WOW WOW . . .— Rejected Manager (@RejectedBook) March 14, 2021
There are no words . . .
Thank you @SunderlandAFC
Thank you @tomsafc @krespeakman for having us and making us feel so welcome. #SunderlandTogether https://t.co/4Ym9jrJNyU pic.twitter.com/CN2j8i528j
Sunderland were patched-up with half-fit players and the game itself was a low-quality affair with few chances, and to their credit, League 2 side Tranmere were far from outclassed by a team that was challenging for the promotion places in League 1. Indeed, the underdogs were probably the better side for the first half and were unlucky losers.
Lee Burge made a couple of good saves in the Sunderland goal in the second half, and it was Lynden Gooch who scored the winner on 57 minutes, running through onto a lovely threaded through-ball from Aiden McGeady and hammering the ball home from 18 years out.
Captain Max Power joined an illustrious but small list of men - Raich Carter and Bobby Kerr - who’ve lifted silverware at the national stadium for the Lads, and Lee Johnson was understandably delighted to have been the man to have broken that “Wembley Hoodoo” that had hung over the club for so many years:
I feel amazing. I feel very proud of everybody, I’m so very, very happy for the fans as I know it’s been a long time coming. They were energised from the messages from home that we had from all our supporters and we felt it. It was a really difficult game and one moment of quality has made us come out victors, so massive credit to Tranmere.
I did a post-match podcast with my mates Bomber and Ant, and we were all very merry at the result. Listening back now we were clearly very happy with the achievement, and we discussed if it would change our momentum as a club, agreeing that it probably was.
We were very, very wrong.
At that point, we thought we would be in with a great chance of adding promotion back to the Championship, but the fixture congestion caused by the Trophy run meant that we had to play eight games in April alone. Sunderland failed to win seven of them, and the opportunity for immediate impact from the new Head Coach and Chairman Kyril Louis-Dreyfus had slipped through our fingers.
Let’s just hope we can get the opportunity to win at Wembley again very soon, and that this time we can be there to cheer the Lads to a really meaningful victory.