Sat on the very back row, up with the gods in the West stand on Tuesday night, headset on, preparing to commentate on the Checkatrade Trophy game, I looked around the Stadium of Light and there wasn’t one soul in sight.
Not even a seagull or a crisp packet swirling around in the wind.
Granted, I did arrive a bit early to preview the game on Talksport 2 but even the lights weren’t turned on yet, so I was quite glad when the host back in the studio, Dan Windle, came to me as I was starting to get a bit lonely.
This was the first Checkatrade Trophy I’d been to since the introduction of Under-21 sides and much of the noise surrounding the competition had been about just that. Questions are being constantly asked.
Should they be allowed to participate? Is this the precursor for B teams to be introduced into the Football League pyramid system? How in God’s name did Donald Trump ever become President of the United States of America? All relative questions, even that last one because as much as you might think it has nothing to do with the Checkatrade Trophy, it’s still not as baffling as the decision not to allow Max Power to play in the game even though it can’t be included as one of the games he will miss as part of his ban.
More than anything, I was curious to know how the fans would embrace the occasion, so when I saw that 7,644 people turned up to watch what was basically a second string Sunderland team with an average age of 24 take on a Stoke City side whose average, excluding 32-year-old Charlie Adam, was 19.5.
No matter what anyone says, even with the reduced entrance fee, that’s still a great crowd for this competition and you have to credit every one of those fans who turned up for giving this game the validity and credibility it deserved.
For all the arguments for and against Under-21 sides being included, the players on the pitch don’t have any say in the matter and for every single one of them, the game has meaning and worth. Especially the teenagers who are looking to get on the next rung of the ladder that leads them into the clouds.
There may be many onlookers thinking this is a game of little importance – but not those players. Going out on loan to other league clubs is the second best experience a player can have, other than playing for his own club’s first team. The players, especially those of Stoke, should be grateful that the crowd came to give them that meaningful experience they can use going forward with their careers. Even for those who missed their penalties.
That experience is stored, ready to be built upon.
For Sunderland, it was a chance for fringe players to impress, it was another stage on the road to recovery for the likes of Charlie Wyke and Jerome Sinclair and a shot at claiming some redemption from last season’s performances for Robbin Ruiter.
And after 90 minutes and the penalty shoot-out victory, it was a good performance overall, especially the last half hour. You could say it was disappointing Sunderland didn’t start the game with the same intensity as they finished it, but the reaction was positive.
The way the defence dealt with the threat of ex-Arsenal and Everton striker Kevin Campbell’s son Tyrese and winger Tre Pemberton was a plus and certainly another impressive cameo appearance from Jerome Sinclair proved to me that he is going to be important this season. With his pace and movement, Josh Maja’s link-up play and the physical presence of Charlie Wyke, there’s good variation available to Jack Ross when all three are fully fit.
But for me, the most impressive performance of the night was from Denver Hume. For a left-footed player playing at right back he looked very comfortable on that side and he was the main driving force behind his team’s late dominance.
After an initial flurry of action in the opening minutes, the game had become stale. Then Hume took matters into his own hands, surging forward with the ball and committing opponents and causing problems.
So you can tinker with the format of the cup and call it any name you like, but it’s still like every other football match in that it’s all about the players and the fans. That’s what makes football and that’s what made Tuesday night.
Even if you still think it’s a bad idea or something you would never watch regardless, try and think of it more like this. No matter what you think about the standard of football on display or what the merits of the competition, bad football is still better than no football at all ... and winning matches is even better.