Drama, debuts and delight: The story of Sunderland's road to Wembley as they prepare for Papa John's Trophy final
From thumping victories to tense shoot-outs - it’s been some journey for Sunderland in the Papa John’s Trophy this term.
And with the final against Tranmere Rovers now on the horizon, we take a look back at the Black Cats’ road to Wembley:
THE GROUP STAGE
Sunderland, drawn in Group A of the northern section, began their campaign with a visit from Aston Villa U21s.
It was their second competitive game of the season and came days after they were knocked out the Carabao Cup on penalties after a goalless draw with Hull.
But while goals were in short commodity in the clash with the Tigers, that certainly wasn’t the case when Villa’s second string came to town.
Sunderland ran-out 8-1 winners at the Stadium of Light, with seven different players on the scoresheet.
Charlie Wyke netted a brace, while Morgan Feeney, Josh Scowen, Max Power, Danny Graham, George Dobson and Aiden O’Brien also found the net. Indiana Vassilev’s penalty was merely a consolation.
The second group stage games was another high-scoring affair, even if the scoreline was far closer.
League Two side Carlisle United gave Sunderland a good run for their money - and even took the lead through an early Lewis Alessandra penalty.
But a double from Chris Maguire, added to by Denver Hume, Charlie Wyke and Jack Diamond, wrapped-up a win.
Former Sunderland academy youngster Jon Mellish did manage to net a brace for the visitors, as an entertaining game finished 5-3.
That result sealed the Wearsiders’ progression to the next round, and left their last group stage game at Fleetwood Town - who had also already sealed qualification - as a dead-rubber.
Then-manager Phil Parkinson took the chance to rotate and handed opportunities to Anthony Patterson, Oliver Younger, Josh Hawkes, Sam Wilding and Vinnie Steels.
In a game which saw the Black Cats suffer no fewer than three injuries to defenders, Callum McFadzean’s early strike was cancelled-out by Barrie McKay before Mark Duffy sealed the win for the hosts.
That meant Sunderland finished the group as runners-up, and would have to play away in the first knockout round...
THE ROUND OF 32
By the time the knockout stages rolled around, Sunderland were under new leadership.
Another trip to Fleetwood - this time a draw in League One - spelled the end of Parkinson’s time in charge and Lee Johnson was appointed as his successor.
An away trip to former club Oldham in the round of 32 was to be the new head coach’s second game in charge - and was one filled with drama before it even began.
First the game’s kick-off was pushed back by 20 minutes after an accident on the M62 delayed the Black Cats’ arrival in the North West.
Then there was a late change to the teamsheet after cup-tied Dion Sanderson was initially named in the starting line-up.
But on the field, things went a little bit more comfortably for the Black Cats.
Well, after they fell behind to a strike from Bobby Grant with just 13 minutes on the clock.
Chris Maguire levelled on the half hour mark before Josh Scowen sealed progression in the second half.
Anthony Patterson, handed a first start under Johnson, made some eye-catching saves in the second half as the Black Cats ensured they would be in the last 16 draw.
THE ROUND OF 16
Next up were another League Two side in Port Vale who, having just appointed Danny Pugh as caretaker manager, were on a good run of form.
But that came to an end at the Stadium of Light as the Black Cats put in one of their best performances in Johnson’s early weeks in charge and ran-out 2-0 winners.
Aiden O’Brien opened the scoring with 21 minutes on the clock with a cool finish. His performance in this game earned the forward a regular run in the side after he caught the eye.
Another player to impress was Dan Neil, who was handed a start and shone in an energetic first 45 minutes as he helped to drive the hosts forward in a dominant display.
Port Vale rarely troubled stand-in stopper Remi Matthews, and perhaps the only disappointment was that Sunderland couldn’t extend their lead further - until the final minute, anyway, when Aiden McGeady slotted home a penalty.
Onto the last eight then, with some stern opponents still in the hat...
It could have been a better draw for Sunderland, there’s no doubt about that.
MK Dons were the next opponents for the side in the Papa John’s Trophy and, in an intriguing dynamic, the cup clash would come days before the pair could meet in the league.
A Dean Lewington own goal on 12 minutes opened the scoring after some good work from Jack Diamond on the right flank and, while things were cagey from there on out, Sunderland managed the game well and were rarely troubled.
And the introductions of Grant Leadbitter, Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke on the hour mark proved a catalyst for a strong finish to the game.
First McGeady netted a goal of his own to end the contest, before a header from in-form Wyke ensured the final scoreline was 3-0 - and Sunderland were into the semi-finals.
And then it was just Lincoln City standing between Sunderland and Wembley.
The Black Cats were handed a favourable home tie in the last four but, after a cagey first half on Wearside, fell behind to Anthony Scully’s instinctive finish.
Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke then combined for a leveller, as the former saw his cross nodded home by the latter.
And while there were late chances at both ends, the game went to penalties.
Remi Howarth was the villain for the visitors as his spot-kick hit the bar - and allowed Grant Leadbitter to slot home the decisive penalty and send his boyhood club to Wembley.