Analysis: Sunderland dumped out with a game to spare, but does the Checkatrade Trophy need another revamp?
Such was the excitement level '“ or lack of '“ at Doncaster Rovers' Keepmoat Stadium that there was almost time to count the number of fans watching.
After a tedious performance, lacking any real quality, Sunderland Under-21s were beaten 1-0 and knocked out of the Checkatrade Trophy with a group game to spare.
The Black Cats were beaten and dumped out of the controversial competition with a whimper.
In the end, results elsewhere didn’t matter, Sunderland had lost their opening two games and with it their hopes of a run in the competition.
There were few positives for first-team coach Robbie Stockdale, taking charge of the team, to draw upon.
There was no lack of effort. But Sunderland lacked quality, a cutting edge and a goal threat all night. In the end, they were beaten by a defensive lapse that Doncaster capitalised on.
Sunderland lined up with three centre-backs – skipper Thomas Beadling, Jack Rodwell and Brendan Galloway – with Denver Hume and Donald Love at wing-back.
Andrew Nelson led the line with support from Rees Greenwood and Luke Molyneux, but Sunderland rarely threatened all evening.
Duncan Watmore – who made his return from a serious knee injury in Saturday’s Championship draw at Preston – wasn’t involved after his 30-minute Deepdale run-out.
There was no Michael Woud, Sam Brotherton, Joel Asoro or Elliot Embleton either for Sunderland due to international call-ups.
The benefits of this competition, from a Sunderland development perspective, was supposed to be the youngsters testing themselves against experienced EFL players.
League One Rovers made eight changes from their weekend defeat to Bradford City, with only Marko Marosi, Niall Mason and Harry Toffolo retaining their places.
The average age of Rovers’ starting XI was 21 years and eight months, with three teenagers in the team, effectively making it no different to what Sunderland play in Premier League 2.
It certainly had the same intensity as an Under-23 game, with neither side able to dominate possession in a tedious opening 45 minutes, chances very few and far between.
Sunderland only managed one effort on goal in 45 minutes. Under-23 skipper Ethan Robson, who kept the armband last night, saw his goalbound free-kick tipped over for a corner.
Rovers, for all their tidy build-up play, didn’t really test Mika in goal either, though they did hit the post from a Liam Mandeville free-kick on the stroke of half-time – a relative highlight of a pedestrian first half inside a near-empty Keepmoat.
Is it time for another shake-up of this competition? You’d have to say it is.
It is difficult to see who the current format benefits.
Clubs with Category One Academy status, like Sunderland, must pick six players under the age of 21 as of June 30 this year.
Scope then for five senior pros, but the other EFL clubs are encouraged to play their full strength team.
The game lacked any spark. Sunderland knew they would be out with a defeat beforehand, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency.
The competition sparked controversy last season with the format and introduction of Premier League and Championship clubs.
Attendances have been poor again this year with little enthusiasm, it seems, for the competition from the fans until the later stages. Plenty to ponder for the organisers.
The second half was similar to the first with chances few and far between, Nelson working hard up front for Sunderland, and almost getting in, but Marosi was out quickly to gather.
Up the other end, Mika had to be alert on the hour mark, making an excellent save to tip wide sub James Morris’s effort.
The breakthrough came in the 70th minute, Rodwell losing possession, Mandeville rolling the ball to Issam Ben Khemis, who hit a superb effort past Mika into the top-left corner.
Rodwell had done OK at the heart of the defence up until that point, playing in the sweeper role. One mistake, punished.
Sunderland barely threatened in the second half, a Greenwood free-kick nodded behind by the Rovers defence the closest they came to any real threat.
Mika saved from sub Morgan James in the closing stages.
The visitors’ Luke Molyneux then forced a comfortable save with a header, when he should have done better.
Sunderland travel to face second-bottom Grimsby in the final group game in November with their fate – and that of the Mariners – already sealed.
Scunthorpe, top of the group on six points after beating Grimsby 2-1, and Doncaster, on five points, are already through to the knockout stage.
For those wondering, the crowd was 1,520, with 93 hardy Sunderland fans making the trip.
Sunderland’s Checkatrade Trophy dream over for another season.