As we find ourselves in the immediate aftermath of the semi-final victory over Bristol Rovers, it is hard not to be gripped by excitement at the prospect of a Wembley. I’m not getting into the fairness of the ticketing system or how the process has been handled by the club. I’m already tired of hearing about phases and purchase histories. Whether you manage to get to the game or have to settle for watching it on TV, it is an occasion to be savoured regardless of what anyone might say.
I was lucky enough to be there in 2014, travelling down with overwhelming feelings of excitement dashed with the reality that we were up against Manchester City. That reality had not fully set in when Fabio Borini shrugged off Vincent Kompany and fired past Costel Pantilimon in the tenth minute. The scenes that unfolded as the net rippled are something I have never experienced before or since following Sunderland. For that reason, Wembley will always be a special place. A chance to return, under any circumstances, is one not to be passed up on.
Though different to the League Cup run of 2014 which acted as a welcome respite from a miserable season, this run has been met with similar enthusiasm. The EFL Trophy has been an extra fix of matches at a time when watching Sunderland is actually enjoyable. Though attendances in the tournament peaked at 16,654 for the visit of Newcastle U21’s, this is not poor by any means. Whilst we all look back at the 2014 run with bleary-eyed nostalgia, only 31,547 fans were in the Stadium of Light when Fabio Borini’s penalty saw off Manchester United in the first leg of the semi-final. Given that the average attendance has fallen by around 15,000 fans during the club’s fall from grace, these figures match up. The competition’s lower profile has been negated by the positive atmosphere surrounding the club, helped by the fact we have remained among the favourites throughout. The tournament is one of the unique elements of the lower leagues and we as a fan base have sought to take all we can from it.
Obviously as fans, our experiences of the tournament differ from the playing staff. The reality of the situation though is that these extra fixtures must be managed alongside our league campaign. Unfortunately, this is something Sunderland haven’t worked out so far. Four of Sunderland’s midweek EFL Trophy fixtures have seen us in league action the following weekend, all of which have ended in draws (including the abandoned game away at Accrington Stanley). More concerning is the fact that this doesn’t appear to be due to fatigue due to Jack Ross’ tendency to rotate his squad for the competition.
Now, there’s no point getting bogged down in hypothetical debates as to whether you’d take the promotion or the cup. The league should, and has taken priority, as seen by the weakened teams we’ve fielded for much of this competition. Despite this, such is the strength of the squad against poor opposition, Sunderland have managed to make it to the final. Both are well within our grasp, so the double must be the target. What remains to be seen however, is whether the backlogged run-in will be a step too far for our squad.
Looking at the history of the finalists also makes for interesting reading. Out of the previous ten winners, only Bristol City in 2015 and Barnsley a year later went on to be promoted. In fact, not only have more EFL Trophy winners gone on to be relegated (3), more teams who lost out in the final have gone on to be promoted (4). Whilst I’m not suggesting the former is remotely possible, losing the final has been the catalyst for a strong end to a season twice as often as winning the trophy has. Of course, this doesn’t account for the fact that our resources are vastly larger than those of every other side to ever play at this level. If anyone can compete across multiple fronts, it is us. But should the red half of Wembley emerge disappointed come March 31st, then it might be a shred of comfort to know that history is on our side for the remainder of the season.
The EFL Trophy final is not a season defining game and the importance of winning it could only be analysed in hindsight. Promotion is the ultimate goal, and the season cannot be deemed a success if it isn’t achieved. That doesn’t mean that we should enjoy our weekend in the capital any less. We deserve to after the past few terrible years. But a winning day out at Wembley in the EFL Trophy would be the cherry on the cake, the cake in this analogue being promotion. Without the cake, the cherry by itself is a lot less appealing and slightly irrelevant.