Fans might have happy memories of semi-final successes at Hillsborough in 1973, 1992 and of course earlier in 2022, but if you put all that to one side Sunderland’s cup record against Sheffield Wednesday isn’t too clever.
The two clubs had met in the League Cup twice before, with the Owls coming out on top on both occasions; first in 2001 when as a second tier side they humiliated then Premier League opposition, and once more in 2018 when they visited a Stadium of Light still reeling from relegation to League One.
Now it is Sunderland that are the Championship club, thanks in part to that semi-final against Wednesday earlier this year, but they rarely looked like reversing the cup trend.
Admittedly, it was always going to be a tough evening – the Lads were facing arguably one of the hardest possible draws at this stage of the tournament when you consider Wednesday’s squad depth, and the added incentive to get some revenge following those play-offs – but the team did themselves no favours at all with a bitterly disappointing showing that displayed very little fluidity.
Alex Neil named a completely different starting XI to the one that beat Bristol City at the weekend, but a lack of cohesion was only one of the problems that beset his team. The unfamiliar partnerships and lack of a traditional focal point up front were compounded by a string of poor passes and sloppy decisions, and even though the hosts had gone ahead with a quality strike it did nothing to spark Sunderland into life.
Whilst there is no shame in conceding such a well hit goal from Dennis Adeniran, the second from Sylla Sow was the result of yet more lackadaisical play. Sunderland lacked intensity throughout and were deservingly punished by a side that seemed to have way more energy despite the stifling conditions – for all the possession the Lads enjoyed they rarely threatened, whereas Darren Moore’s team looked much more purposeful when the time arose.
This is a trend that is becoming more common in the game, where teams are happy to let the opposition keep the ball if they are not doing anything with it. That was certainly the case here, and because they didn’t move the ball quickly enough Sunderland seemed a pale imitation of what we have been seeing over the last few months; this was the worst performance in a long time and the players will be deeply frustrated at failing to get into any sort of rhythm.
For all of that, it is important not to lose sight of the fact this is only Neil’s second defeat in competitive action. His players have responded well to previous setbacks and if they can move on from this then you can accept the odd slip up. Harrison Sohna, Michael Spellman and Caden Kelly all deserved their selections too and will have gained plenty from the experience, so maybe there is a slight positive to be had there.
There’ll even be some that see elimination as a blessing, although it is not a view I subscribe to personally; whether you want to treat the cups seriously or not, they offer the chance for fringe players to stay sharp and ready for league games should they be required. Defeat stings no matter what the competition, particularly when it is not something we have been used to of late, and surrendering such a strong unbeaten record does feel a shame despite the circumstances. Fingers crossed then that we get back to our old selves on Saturday.
My Man of the Match: Jack Diamond. Asked to play a role that does not come naturally to him, but still did what he could. Cameron Dawson had a very easy night of it in the Wednesday goal, but it was Diamond that went closest to testing him.