Unlike two years ago, if Sunderland were to win their Semi Final to reach the EFL Trophy final, there won’t be thousands of fans lining the streets of London and taking over Trafalgar Square. A behind-closed-doors Final does not really appeal to many fans, as the occasion of the day out at Wembley generally outweighs the importance of winning the EFL cup itself.
The Papa John’s Trophy is a competition that isn’t really taken seriously until the latter stages where it then becomes a golden opportunity for lower-league clubs to reach Wembley and win a Cup. For Sunderland, in the 18/19 season us fans were excited to get to Wembley five years after the last visit, but it was more the experience of the build-up and the night before that attracted 40,000 fans to the capital for the game against Portsmouth. Although that Final didn’t end how we’d hoped it would, it didn’t take long for the disappointment to ease as we looked to push on for promotion.
A unique Wembley weekender will take place this year with both the 2020 and 2021 Finals taking place on two consecutive days. Whilst it would be nice to win our first trophy since the Championship in 2007, the Papa John’s in a Stadium with no fans isn’t exactly going to require an open-top bus parade (around empty streets!) but it will give the chance for the squad to play at Wembley and get their hands on some silverware, which could be crucial for their confidence as we approach the latter stages of the season. With games coming thick and fast, a Wembley victory could provide the lads with that extra 5-10 percent with games against Portsmouth, Peterborough, Charlton, and Hull City all still to play.
Obviously, we are not in the final yet and there’s no guarantee that we will beat Lincoln City. If someone had said that five years ago, they would sound crazy, however we now found ourselves with a tough game against the league leaders, a side who are indeed eight points ahead of us with one less game played. Despite a very impressive 4-0 win against them in one of Lee Johnson’s first games as Head Coach, we have proven time and time again this season that a dominant performance one game can quickly change the next time around.
We only have to go back two weeks to look at the previous round where we played MK Dons off the park in a convincing 3-0 victory, then a mere four days later in the same Stadium we only managed a 2-2 draw, again proving you can never get complacent as a Sunderland fan.
Whilst it holds little value and causes teams to play a lot of fixtures, this competition can be a very good opportunity for players who are often either on the bench or not in the squad to prove themselves worthy of a starting place in the side. We’ve seen youngsters like Oliver Younger and Dan Neil impress so far, and I would personally like to see them being given more game time in the league as we have to rotate due to playing two games a week at the moment.
Although the fans won’t get the day out should we get to the final, in 2019 we saw how much it meant to the players and they did not lose a game between the semi final and final, including a game against 2nd place Barnsley away. The two games after the final were also Sunderland away wins. Many Sunderland players have never won at Wembley or even played on the hallowed turf so this opportunity, could give Lee Johnson and the squad a massive boost going forward.
The game against Lincoln could prove a big test, especially with Willis, Flanagan, Sanderson and Vokins all unavailable.
I can see any outcome for us here to be honest, nothing surprises me with SAFC! If we did get to Wembley then there is no reason why we couldn’t beat Oxford and definitely Tranmere, but yet again if we got beat, would anybody be that shocked? It has been the story of our season; inconsistency and a lack of ruthlessness has seen us drop so many points that would’ve put us right up there instead of dipping in and out of the play-offs. I think it would be typical Sunderland to beat the league leaders and the lose the final to Tranmere, but I’m trying to remain optimistic after the 4-1 victory on Saturday!
Finally, for me this competition was previously about giving the fans the Wembley trip to enjoy so although I would be very happy to win on Wednesday and the Cup itself, I wouldn’t be too disheartened if we didn’t. It’s more about the players this time. It’s a chance of their big day rather than ours.
On our day we can beat anyone at this level, so in Lee Johnson’s first Semi-Final in charge of the lads, let’s hope we can get it right.