With Sunderland’s fixture list becoming ever more congested and promotion from League One the priority, it would be easy to disregard the Checkatrade Trophy.
However, the Black Cats continue to take the competition seriously and face Notts County at the Stadium of Light tonight in the first knockout round.
Sunderland will make widespread changes to the side that drew 1-1 with Walsall in the FA Cup but a strong team will still line-up against the struggling League Two outfit.
Duncan Watmore will start, while the likes of Alim Ozturk, Bryan Oviedo, Max Power, Luke O’Nien and Jerome Sinclair are likely to line up alongside the fit-again forward.
There is, after all, a Wembley Stadium final at stake with Sunderland now just four games away from a trip to the capital.
Assistant manager James Fowler believes the competition has been a benefit to Sunderland’s youngsters, with 17-year-old Bali Mumba set to start tonight, another chance to impress Jack Ross following his sub appearance against Walsall.
Fowler and Ross share the view that Mumba - who recently signed his first professional contract - has a big future ahead of him.
“He was 16 up until a couple of weekends ago, so we have to remember his age and make sure we look after him,” said Fowler.
“If he continues like he has, he’s going to have a really exciting future ahead of him.
“From a coaching point of view, we just need to make sure he gets a taste of it, gets bits and pieces, and keeps on progressing, whether that’s through training with the first team or game time as well.
“It’s just about finding that balance.
“We’re there to help, it doesn’t matter who it is, whether it’s Bali or the rest of the young players. It’s about getting that opportunity, and Bali has managed to get his.
“He’s involved in the first team on a daily basis just now, but it’s important we’re looking at the bigger picture and that everybody who’s doing well gets rewarded.
“Bali’s an exciting talent, and it’s great for a coach to see his enthusiasm and his smile every day when he comes to training.
“He loves being involved, he wants to get better, and he’s a really level-headed lad.
“I’m sure his attitude will do him great alongside his ability moving forward.”
Fowler added: “Luke O’Nien has been doing really well coming off the bench, he started Saturday obviously and will get another opportunity tonight.
“He is somebody that would train 24 hours a day if he could, he obviously wants to play games.
“It is part of his development too, getting to grips with how the manager wants to play, the size of the club. Bali is another who showed his quality when he came on.
“It is important we see him in competitive action from the start. It is good for their development and good for us to see where they are at.”
The competition has faced severe criticism since it was revamped with the Checkatrade notorious for low attendances since select Premier League and Championship Under-23 sides were allowed to enter.
Fowler insists the competition has been a benefit and is eager to see Sunderland get one game closer to that Wembley final.
“It has been good, sometimes it has clashed with the international schedule so Bali missed out last time but he is available this time and it allows us to progress our young players as well.
“With the U23 teams coming in, the aim is to progress their young players but it is important we do too.
“Sunderland has a history of producing their own players and it is important that we mix our younger ones with the older ones and it has worked well up to now.
“You are probably not thinking about that [Wembley final] too much but you want to win every game you take part in.
“Tonight will allow us to make some changes and freshen things up but we still want to win the game and it gets you another game closer to Wembley.
“It is a competitive fixture, Notts County will want to come and win the game. There may be that slightly less intensity to it [compared to a league game] but there will still be that competitive side.
“We are going to need the whole squad over this busy period, it is how we manage them, we want a strong December.
“It is a balancing act, we want to progress through and we believe the squad is strong enough.
“Some people have had to be patient because the boys have been doing so well in the league.
“You want to take it seriously and we will do, it allows us to progress some of the younger boys. It will be good to see them in a competitive environment.”
Notts County are managed by ex-AFC Wimbledon boss Neal Ardley, who took over at the end of last month and tonight will be his first game in charge
Fowler said: “We will give Notts County the respect they deserve, they are playing under a new manager, wanting to impress and win the game.
“We need to be aware of that but we have a quality squad and believe we can win games, whichever team we put out.
“There will be some changes, some of the lads that played at the weekend from the start will play again, game time for them to keep them ticking over, for confidence too and to make sure we progress through the competition.
“It is important we name a strong team for the game.”