Tony Gillan: Please Sunderland - forget the Checkatrade Trophy and focus on League One success

There was a time when Sunderland had an outside chance of winning a major trophy.

By Tony Gillan
Monday, 01 July, 2019, 18:00
Sunderland need to finalise their cup strategy

I’m not talking about the 1930s here. I mean much more recently when they were in the Premier League (whatever that is) or, at a push, the Championship.

By major trophy I mean the FA Cup or League Cup. When I say an outside chance, I really mean an outside chance.

But there’s a difference between long odds and out-of-the-question and, in the last decade, major finals have been contested by Sunderland, Swansea, Southampton, Bradford, Cardiff, Birmingham, Watford, Wigan, Crystal Palace, Hull, Stoke, Portsmouth – and Manchester United.

But all of those clubs bar one was in the top two leagues when they played in finals. The exception was Bradford City, who were thumped 5-0.

Burton Albion made laudable progress into last season’s League Cup semi-final (or Caraboa Cup as no one calls it), where they were humiliated 10-1 on aggregate by Manchester City.

To put it succinctly – third tier teams don’t win major trophies.

Pedants may refer to QPR and Swindon winning League Cups from the Third Division in the 1960s; but that was when the competition was taken even less seriously than now.

The two main knock-out cups hold only one attraction for Sunderland currently: the possibility of making much needed hard cash.

SAFC’s sole purpose in both competitions is to draw a lucrative televised tie against Liverpool or some such, thereby making the maximum money the cups can realistically offer. It’s straightforward enough.

Before that is even a possibility, Sunderland must make the decidedly awkward looking and less exciting trip to Accrington Stanley on August 13.

More likely than profitable glamour fixtures in the cups is something similar to last season: early exits to Walsall and Sheffield Wednesday.

But at least Sunderland know what is expected in the major cup competitions. How are they supposed to approach the 2019-20 Checkatrade Trophy (or EFL Trophy as no one calls it)?

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This is less straightforward and more problematic. Last season Sunderland reached the final and had lots of fun.

Charlie Methven said beforehand: “If we get to the final of the Checkatrade Trophy, the club would probably make about a million quid” – a very useful about a million quid too.

That, and a jolly time, was all that was good about the trophy; a competition in which a glamour tie is impossible. Premier League clubs are only allowed to field their academy sides; that’s if they bother to enter the tournament at all.

The supposed aims of the Checkatrade would be far better served by a return to the old reserves leagues.

But how should Sunderland approach it? It would be beneficial if their strategy was decided in July.

Other than supporters of the two clubs to contest the final on March 31 this year, few people will remember it. Even fewer will care (that’s supposing even Sunderland and Portsmouth fans care).

It was a lark, but it served to lower the attendance for an infinitely more important Wembley appearance eight weeks later.

More significantly, it contributed to a wearying fixture backlog, the consequences of which we can never know for certain. But be sure it didn’t help.

At first it didn’t seem to matter; followed as it was by victories at Accrington and Rochdale.

Then came dodgy results against Blackpool, Coventry and Portsmouth. Fifteen games in nine weeks took its toll. Was it really worth “about a million quid”?

Lest I be accused of reaping the benefit of hindsight, I say before a ball is kicked – please don’t take a largely meaningless competition so seriously next time.