Richard Mennear's analysis: Young Cats getting fringe benefits from Checkatrade Trophy adventure
Experience. You can't beat it.
Forget the fact this was the Checkatrade Trophy, forget the fact that only 633 people were inside the Stadium of Light watching, there were some big pluses for Sunderland last night.
Vito Mannone and Seb Larsson both played 90 minutes in the Under-23s’ 2-1 win over Notts County on a bitterly cold evening – a big boost for David Moyes’ first-team squad.
Moyes was watching on from the stands, making notes, as Robbie Stockdale led the side into the knockout stages of the competition.
And he will have been pleased with the return of the duo.
Mannone, back early from shoulder surgery, carried out at the end of August and Larsson – a whole three months ahead of schedule from knee surgery.
Moyes’ injury problems have eased in recent weeks, the good news off the field coinciding with the club’s first Premier League win of the season against Bournemouth.
And the return of Mannone and Larsson, with Jason Denayer also back fit after an adductor injury, are welcome additions to the Sunderland squad.
All three could be involved in the matchday squad against Hull City when the Premier League returns after the November international break.
Jordan Pickford has, of course, taken advantage of Mannone’s prolonged absence with a series of brilliant displays which have earned him rave reviews and a call into the main England squad.
He won’t be dislodged from the Sunderland team anytime soon. But the return of Mannone is still a big boost for Moyes.
He has plenty of experience of successful battles against relegation at Sunderland in recent seasons and him being back involved on matchdays and in the dressing room can only help.
The Italian will also push Pickford hard and that can only be a good thing for the 22-year-old.
Larsson, meanwhile, offers Moyes plenty of food for thought in central midfield, an area Sunderland have struggled in this season.
With Lee Cattermole and Jan Kirchhoff on the way back to fitness, the return of vastly experienced Larsson is another welcome boost.
Larsson was neat and tidy and was heavily involved in the winner against League Two Notts County – watched by around 40 of their hardcore supporters.
Sunderland officials treated them to a hot beverage. A nice touch on a cold Wearside evening.
Notts looked to be heading back to Nottingham with a place in the knockout stages too until Sunderland’s late comeback.
Ex-Newcastle United striker Adam Campbell opened the scoring for the visitors four minutes into the second half, but two late goals rescued victory for Sunderland.
Sub Josh Maja scored in the 84th minute to equalise before a Haydn Hollis own goal in the 90th minute sealed victory for the hosts.
Sunderland qualify from the group stages along with group winners Rochdale.
County won two early corners in a dominating opening five-minute spell.
But Mannone looked confident as he came and gathered the ball.
Notts were almost undone seven minutes in. The ball broke to winger Rees Greenwood, who curled an effort just wide of the right-hand post.
Moments later, George Honeyman found himself in an almost identical position, but his effort also sailed just wide of Scott Loach’s post.
Sunderland grew into the game, with Larsson dictating play as he makes his way back from knee surgery in the summer.
Notts keeper Loach was brave on 23 minutes, diving at the feet of Honeyman as he bore down on goal, a smart save to deny the 22-year-old.
Moments later, County almost took the lead through Graham Burke, he cut in from the right flank before shooting low towards the left-hand corner of goal from 25 yards. Mannone was down quickly to push the ball wide for a corner.
Sunderland were playing the ball around nicely, with Larsson at the heart of every move, but the visitors’ threat was clear. And they almost took the lead after 32 minutes.
Mannone was called on to make a superb one-handed save to push Alan Smith’s goal-bound header over the Sunderland crossbar.
Joel Asoro, leading the line for the Black Cats, headed wide from a Honeyman centre, with neither side able to find a breakthrough.
Notts started the second half strongly and took the lead four minutes after the re-start.
Mannone saved well from Hollis, the ball going out for a corner and, from that set piece, County took the lead, Campbell hooking the ball home from close range.
John Sheridan’s side – sixth in League Two – were pressing for a second goal, with Sunderland unable to get into any rhythm in the second half.
Smith should have doubled the lead on 62 minutes. Burke and Campbell combined before laying the ball off to the former Leeds and Manchester United man.
But he couldn’t make a good contact and Mannone saved well with his legs to deflect the ball around the post for a corner.
Sunderland produced their best move of the game five 67 minutes later, the ball breaking to Greenwood 20 yards out ,but he could only see his effort curl wide of the upright.
The visitors continued to press, but Sunderland withheld the pressure and got the equaliser six minutes from time.
Sub Luke Molyneux, a lively addition to the hosts, slid fellow sub Maja in and he did well to slide the ball under Loach from eight yards out to level the scores.
The game turned on its head in the 90th minute, Hollis diverting the ball into his own net from a Larsson cross for a late Sunderland winner.
Victory ensured Sunderland qualified from Northern Group F with seven points from their three games, finishing as runners-up ahead of the draw for the knockout stages.
Whatever you think of the Checkatrade Trophy, Sunderland’s younger players can only benefit from an extended run in the competition.