At Facebook, Nick Barnes could barely contain his excitement at the commentary duties that lay ahead of him: ‘a beautiful evening for the carnival of football that is the Checkatrade Trophy’. Needless to say, our Pete Sixsmith was there too and, without getting too enthralled by the spectacle, quote enjoyed the rare sight of a Sunderland team winning a game …
The Checkatrade English Football League Trophy is definitely the runt of the litter when it comes to English competitions.
It has been on the go for the neck end of 30 years under various guises, most recently as The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Barnsley won it last year, defeating Oxford United at Wembley in front of a crowd in excess of 60,000 and, in the latter stages, attendances are pretty good.
Not so in the newly restored group stage. Our Under 23s game at Hartlepool attracted 1200 of which 400+ were sat in the stand behind the goal and were wearing red and white favours. The blue and whites of Pools were scattered throughout the Main Stand and the Town End, while the terrace and seats of the Mill House Stand were empty.
To be fair, there wasn’t a great deal to turn out for. Pools boss Craig Hignett had made it perfectly clear that he thought the competition was a waste of time and, after losing their first game at Notts County, there was little incentive for him to select a strong team.
However, EFL rules say that clubs should select a number of first team players, but with Pools having two players away on International duty with Northern Ireland, that cut down their pool of available first teamers to the bare minimum.
Robbie Stockdale took charge of Sunderland and selected three players who could be considered part of the First Team squad. Mika Domingues started in goal for his “competitive” debut, Billy Jones came in at full back and was given the honour of wearing the captain’s armband and Donald Love took up a position in midfield.
And it was the young Scot, with the White Heather Club-like name, who rattled in the winner in the second half. He finished off a good move which had involved Jones and Josh Maja and planted his shot firmly past Adam Bartlett in the Pools goal.
This was the third time we had made the old onion bag bulge as Maja had had two disallowed for offside but he had finished off good moves with some aplomb.
When presented with the easiest of chances after we had gone ahead, the youngster looked for the flag, saw it was down and hit the keeper when even Jozy might have scored. But he looked useful and laid the ball off well until he tired.
David Moyes was there and posed for photos in the car park after the game. He would have been reasonably impressed with all of the players but would not have seen any answers to the problems that beset us at the moment. Is there a dominant central defender? Do we have a genuinely creative midfield player? Is there a natural goalscorer in the club?
These and other problems will have to be fixed in the January window. In the meantime, a win over Notts County at the beginning of next month and we will qualify for the knockout stages. The excitement is growing.