Phil Smith: The key challenge Sunderland now face and the history lesson from two years ago that could provide an answer

One by one they queued up to make a point.

Tuesday, 16th March 2021, 12:45 pm

There was pride, for sure, at their part played in ending a near 50-year wait for success at Wembley.

Delight at some demons exorcised, and excitement at the buzz they knew they had created on Wearside.

But every player who spoke after the 1-0 win over Tranmere Rovers had another point to make: This has to be just the start, and there are even bigger games on the horizon.

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Dylan McGeouch in action at Accrington Stanley

In the context of their goals for the season, Sunderland have really achieved nothing yet.

Even as he basked in the glow of leading his team to a trophy, Lee Johnson had no issues at all stressing exactly the same.

"We've ticked that box now, we've got the silverware, we've got to have that belief and support the boys," he said.

"We know there's going to be bumps in the road, straight away we're at Accrington and it can't be after the lord mayor's show, we've got to churn out another performance and another win.

"The good news is we've got lads [cup tied] in the stands ready to come back, and we've got the likes of Ross Stewart and Benji Kimpioka coming back.

"We've just got to keep going.”

You could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu.

Two years ago, Sunderland travelled to Accrington Stanley with their automatic promotion hopes standing on a similar precipice.

It also came just days after an EFL Trophy.

Of course, on that occasion it was defeat and despair, but the fundamental challenge for Jack Ross and his squad was the same.

To find focus after the emotional toll of the weekend before, and to find a freshness that would deliver a crucial result.

Accrington Stanley were a threat then and even more so now, though their form has dipped since the heady early days of the campaign.

What happened that night two years could be instructive for the Black Cats.

Ross was forced into some changes, the inevitable result of that utterly gruelling tie with Portsmouth.

Lee Cattermole picked up a knock, while George Honeyman served the final game of his suspension for a red card picked up at Wycombe Wanderers.

Ross, though, went further.

Five changes were made in total, and particularly significant were the decisions to bring Denver Hume and Dylan McGeouch into the fold.

McGeouch produced arguably the best performance of his eighteen months at the club, tenacious in his pressing and sharp in his passing. Frustrated at his gametime in the weeks previous, Ross picked the perfect moment to introduce a midfielder determined to make his mark.

Hume, too, impressed, named man of the match by former Leeds United boss Neil Redfearn, commentating on talkSPORT for the game.

Sunderland switched formation, too, playing Will Grigg and Charlie Wyke in a front too.

It was an open game on a poor pitch, and a slightly more direct approach reaped rewards for the Black Cats.

Afterwards, Ross said it had been one of the most satisfying wins of the campaign to date for his squad.

"There have been loads of good wins along the way but this is a pleasing win for the players," he said.

"I said how sore they were after Sunday.

“They put a huge amount in and it hurts when you lose in that environment so to refocus I was delighted for them.

“The satisfaction from the win is up there with any this season in terms of what the players have had to deal with and how they responded as a whole group.

"The pitch wasn’t easy to play on, there were loads of different aspects of the game which were pleasing.

"It was a lot to do with the conditions, we knew we would have to play forward quicker and we did it well.

“You need the players within the system, a lot if made of systems but a lot of it is down to how players play within it.

"Those players played well, it was terrific for me because there was a number of those players that had been frustrated at a lack of game time, I have always commented saying they kept themselves right in training and bounce games and that showed tonight.

“It was really pleasing for me as a manager.”

When Rochdale were beaten in the last minute just days later, Sunderland looked primed for promotion.

What followed then is well known, but with difficult opponents, a similar set of results this week will see the mood on Wearside soar even further.

For Johnson there are some natural opportunities to reflect that freshness that Ross was able to achieve to cope with any mental and physical fatigue from Wembley.

In Dion Sanderson and Carl Winchester he has two players in excellent form going into the final, who will no doubt be eager to put to one side the frustration of being cup tied for the Wembley win.

With Tom Flanagan picking up a knock and Grant Leadbitter only returning from a dislocated shoulder on Sunday, there is an obvious chance to switch things around with disrupting the shape of the team that has by and large proved successful of late.

Conor McLaughlin's timely return at Wembley, and the assured performance he produced, gives another option to Johnson.

In forward areas his options may be more limited, with the extent of Jordan Jones and Aiden O'Brien's muscle injuries not yet known.

Ross Stewart is fit, but Johnson pointedly said post-match on Sunday that he would have struggled to produce more than a quarter of an hour.

The clear messages from the dugout and the squad at Wembley told you there was little chance of this game being an afterthought.

Everyone knows how high the stakes are the task for Johnson is to find the balance between keeping things fresh, and maintaining that all-important consistency.

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