While tens of thousands head south I’ll be one of the few who will make the tea-time reservations with my Mam this Mothering Sunday despite Sunderland gracing the hallowed Wembley turf – but why?
When I was growing up and being set a sail on this life-long journey that is supporting Sunderland by my Dad some 20 odd years ago, the thought of dismissing an appearance at Wembley in a cup final would have been sacrilege of the highest order – and yet here we are.
A week which culminates in the capital and 90-ninety minutes of football for the opportunity to walk up those illustrious Wembley stairs and lift some silverware for the first time in nearly 46-years – who wouldn’t be excited, enthused and whatever else that should accommodate such an occasion? Unfortunately, I just cannot get invested in this competition or even the aura of a Wembley weekend because of it.
What was once a relatively respected competition, albeit still a lower league competition, the Checkatrade Trophy has fallen victim to the Premier League’s iron fist of ruling over football with the inclusion of reserve teams over the past three seasons and while we as a club have accepted the invitation and sent out reserves teams in the competition in previous years that should still not be the case. A competition mixing first teams and second string teams just doesn’t strike me much as an important competition – more of a training exercise, an inconvenience or a hypothetical view to an unwanted future of league football including B teams.
In the run-up to the final some here at ALS towers have been sharing their views and memories of the clubs previous jaunts to the big smoke to see Sunderland under the arch in cup or Play-Off finals which have reaffirmed my lack of interest about this Checkatrade Trophy final. To me, a cup final at Wembley should represent a childhood dream. A ‘pinch me I can’t believe this is happening’ moment – something the Checkatrade Trophy does not offer.
In 2014 I got to fulfil that dream for the League Cup final against Manchester City. The eagerness and excitement and disbelief began in the January after the first leg of the semi-final against Manchester United. A 2-1 win meant the tie was far from over but it was enough of a carrot dangled in front of me to presumptuously book hotels in London for cup final weekend ‘just in case.’ The second leg at Old Trafford is probably the greatest night I’ve had following Sunderland in my 20 year match-going tenure. I was literally in tears of joy and incredulity. We’d taken out Chelsea and Man United along the way and I was actually going to see Sunderland at Wembley in a cup final and we were going to win it [and not a reserve team in sight].
The weeks succeeding were just full of adrenaline and anticipation – my Leeds and Barnsley supporting friends at university were absolutely pig sick of me talking about Wembley – until the day finally came to join the red and white exodus to London. Red and white scarves and shirts and flags decorated the A1 from Durham to Borehamwood where we parked the car before training in. Then there was THAT Saturday night. Stepping out of Leicester Square tube station on a Saturday night in London and somewhere distinctly in the distance the chorus of “Sunderland, Sunderland, Sunderland,” echoing around the West End still prompts the hairs on my arms to stand upright when reminiscing.
Covent Garden was overrun with a Mackem twang. Songs were sung. Beers were emptied down throats [apart from Brown Ale] all in immaculate taste and there wasn’t a Man City fan to be seen. Sunderland had taken over. Cup final day brought with it a monumental hangover and emotions I’d never experienced. Nervous anticipation. Hope. Optimism. Fear. Christ is this happening? The hangover was replaced by tears in the eyes again on a Wembley way as Sunderland shirts new and old filled the horizon. Christ, is this happening?
After the pictures and gawping and reality checks it was time to head in and to the seat. The Sunderland end packed out and in full voice long before kick off as the City contingent flitted in just in time for kick off as though they were accustomed to the Wembley nostalgia now they were rich and mint. The cup which was up for grabs was twirled around above our heads in a quite spectacular acrobatic show as the backing track grew louder and louder and the fire displays added to the drama. The teams walked out. The tears returned. The national anthem was sung while arm-in-arm with friends. Christ, is this happening?
The rest, of course, is history. The result didn’t go our way but we took the lead. A gigantic big silver-League Cup-shaped carrot this time was dangled for 55-minutes and the performance was outstanding to a man. I was almost inconsolable on the tube back to the hotel having convinced myself it was our time. There is still a little bit of my heart which breaks whenever I think back to that game. But that is what a cup final and an appearance at Wembley should be. Something that can consume you like that weekend in 2014 did for me. The Checkatrade Trophy unfortunately gets nowhere near. A competition which is not even regarded as relevant to the FA when disciplining players for red cards.
Irrespective of the Checkatrade Trophy being a devalued competition in its own right, it is also a competition symbolic of Sunderland’s fall in the last two years. While the “we are where we deserve to be” mentality is justified [because we are] there comes a certain point where a little arrogance and self-indulgence must prevail.
What I mean by that is we as fans should be looking above and beyond competitions such as this and League One for that matter. Six times champions of England. Twice FA Cup winners. Frequent in the Premier League. This is Sunderland. Of course we deserve to be in League One at the moment due to the complete negligence and incompetence of former owners, managers and players over the past two years. But this is only the second time in the clubs near 140-year history that has been the case so let’s not believe this as the norm or accept staying here.
That is in no way scrutinising the current regime of owners, managers, staff or players as, with the exception of a select few of the playing staff, they have played no part in Sunderland’s demise – and those who have are at least rolling their sleeves up and trying to rectify it this season. It is a perspective that, in the end, Sunderland are better than this. The novelty of playing sides we never have done before and visiting grounds that in reality are unequipped to welcome the amount of fans we bring has quickly worn off. The shit refereeing. The shocking gamesmanship tactics from the opposition. The poor standard. Playing reserve teams in competitive games. I don’t class this season as an enjoyment. I’m not content at ‘just winning games again’ because it is at this level. I just want to get out of this division as quickly as possible and get back to something like a season we can appreciate – or at least a season under the radar away from embarrassment and despair.
As a result of Sunday’s final, another league fixture has had to be rescheduled in the shape of Burton Albion at home; adding another game to an already littered April. Currently five points adrift of Barnsley in second – potentially eight by the time we return to league action on Wednesday week – the game overload in April could be the difference between automatic promotion and being in the Play-Offs where promotion is far from guaranteed and another, much more important, trip to Wembley a possibility.
Now I’m not taking a shot at any of the 40,000 strong going to London this weekend. By all means go and enjoy it. Take your children [if you have them] and make memories. But let’s not laud this win [if it happens] as something of significance. It is a competition we are participating in due to how shit we are – and that’s not something I enjoy. Of course I will be tuned in and watching on Sunday and of course I will want Sunderland to win just as I do every week. But the following Wednesday’s game at Accrington is so much more important, as is Rochdale and Burton and Coventry and Doncaster and Peterborough and Portsmouth and Fleetwood and Southend. Those are the games that will ensure we don’t have to compete in a questionable competition – a competition boycotted by its regular competitor’s fans in the future.
There has been cases where winning this trophy has encouraged teams to go on to promotion and better things thereafter – look no further than Southampton following their triumph in the original, tolerable version of this competition nine years ago. I hope that we can follow in their footsteps over the next number of seasons.
But for now, let’s just go down there, enjoy your weekends, get it won [sending a message to Portsmouth in the process], no injuries and get a run of crucial victories in the league snowballing as a result and maybe I’ll accept it accompanying the League One title on the bus parade come May… now where’s my tin hat.