We all know the Checkatrade, plus the international breaks and that match abandonment at Accrington Stanley, have left us with ground to make up on the other promotion contenders. A congested April (eight league games) makes a top-two place all the harder to secure. Here, Simon Carving puts the case for a bold selection choice for Sunday’s final …
Sunderland are delicately poised in fourth position in League One, five points behind second-placed Barnsley but, importantly, with two games in hand. Win those games (and a third if, as expected, Barnsley see off Coventry at home on Saturday to create an eight-point gap), and they will climb into the second automatic promotion place. Stumble and they will end up in the playoffs.
The playoffs are always something of a lottery as an analysis of the past few seasons’ playoffs clearly shows. In other words, it’s anyone’s guess which of the four participating teams will win through and gain that third promotion spot. Can Sunderland afford to take that risk?
One big potential danger lies ahead, and that is the Checkatrade Trophy final. If Sunderland incur any serious injuries to players on Sunday, it could ruin their chances of a good run-in to the end of the season and dash any hopes of promotion.
Trophies like the Checkatrade that don’t offer anything other than the trophy itself can be something of a distraction. It’s all very well when combatants have nothing else to play for, but when they do, such trophies can present dangers.
Beyond the risk of injury to key players, there is also the threat of diverting players’ attention from the more fundamental aims of winning promotion.
Nobody wants to see their teams lose any sort of match – let alone a final. But, on the other hand, it’s equally important to get priorities right, and surely the number one priority for Sunderland has to be an immediate return to the Championship.
Want it or not [believe me, 40,000+ Sunderland fans cannot wait for Sunday – Ed] the final is happening and if the team does win, all well and good as long as the price isn’t too high.
Jack Ross’s balancing act – how to deliver silverware without damaging the greater need – may require him to be to be prudent with team selection. Arguably, the final does present Sunderland with an excellent opportunity to give a run-out to younger players and other members of the squad who haven’t so far managed to secure regular selection in the starting 11 [I suspect most of us want to see the strongest possible side – Ed].
Dylan McGeouch is one who is having trouble claiming a regular first team place. The 26-year-old Scot is in his prime, but a string of niggling injuries has often left him unfit for selection. Even when chosen, he has not always been fully match fit and has been unable to produce performances to match expectations.
There can be little doubt though of the midfielder’s abilities. At his previous club, Hibs, he consistently demonstrated playmaking class, so much so that he was selected for the Scottish national side.
If Sunderland do make it into to the Championship, he is just the sort of player they will need.
Lack of fitness and not being given the opportunity to play have hampered him being able to establish himself as a fixture in midfield for the Black Cats. But the Checkatrade final could be the opportunity he needs to change that.
Ross is well aware of McGeouch’s qualities having seen him in action many times in Scotland when he managed St Mirren, Alloa, Hearts and Dumbarton. He would love him to be able to finally replicate his Hibs form at Sunderland.
But that necessitates the manager having the confidence to select him and stick with him to allow him to develop into the player he was expected to be.
The perfect stage to begin the process is Wembley, in the Checkatrade final. Let’s hope he is given that chance and that he is able to rise to the occasion.