Since 1983, what we now know as the Papa John’s Trophy has been a permanent fixture of the lower league football calendar.
Until 2018, Sunderland’s involvement in the competition had been minimal, with their only previous flirtation with the tournament coming in 1987-88 where they suffered defeat to Hartlepool in the first knockout round of the then-called Sherpa Vans Trophy.
From its initial title of The Associate Members Cup, through its many guises over the years, the competition had always had a wholesome feel to it.
It provided an opportunity for lower league clubs to experience a day out at Wembley without the stress of a play-off final.
Traditionally, I always hoped to see the likes of Hartlepool, Darlington and Carlisle get to the final or even win it, which in itself provides something of a dilemma for Sunderland fans.
We are used to viewing such competitions from afar and justifiably feel that the whole thing should be beneath us.
Levels of enthusiasm have been tested even further since 2016, when Premier League teams were invited to enter their academy sides in the competition.
This left a sour taste in the mouth for many and we now find ourselves competing for a trophy which is not even considered desirable for the teams it was actually created for.
Clubs across the country have recorded record low attendances in the Checkatrade and Leasing.com Trophy and this season even the carrot of a day out at Wembley for the fans has gone.
Sunderland, themselves have experienced the absurdity of the whole thing from their very first appearance in the competition where we entertained Stoke City Under 21’s who featured…*checks notes*, a 32 year old, Charlie Adam.
Following a goalless draw, we won on penalties, but due to competition rules we were only awarded two points, one point attributed to each side for the draw and a bonus point for winning the shootout.
Do we count that as a win, a win-draw or just a draw? Why are they having a penalty shootout to decide a group stage fixture? Why are teams allowed to field overage players in a competition where academy sides are encouraged to enter to develop their young players? Your guess is as good as mine.
Our reward for our safe passage through the group stages and routine win over Notts County was a tie against Newcastle United Under 21’s.
For many Sunderland fans, this fixture was our worst nightmare, there was the sheer indignity of playing their under 21’s in a competitive fixture coupled with the near impossibility of emerging from the tie with much credit.
If we won, then nobody would bat an eyelid and any form of celebration would be gleefully seized upon by Newcastle fans, but if the unthinkable happened we’d never hear the end of it.
Thankfully, we recorded a comfortable 4-0 win and Newcastle proved how irrelevant we are in their minds by travelling in their thousands to sing about Adam Johnson, Netflix and something about airports and shopping facilities.
Like any competition however, excitement levels grew the closer we got to a Wembley final and after we beat Bristol Rovers in the semi-final, the usual scramble for match tickets, train tickets, and hotel rooms began in earnest.
I don’t need to go into too much detail about the weekend itself, we all vividly recall drinking London dry, the scenes in Trafalgar Square, the rendition of Can’t Help Falling in love that made the hairs on the back of our necks stand up and the carnage after both Aiden McGeady goals.
Although, in the grand scheme of our season it didn’t matter too much and compared to the sheer heartbreak of the play off final defeat a couple of months later, we got over it pretty quickly, at the time I felt pretty gutted about it.
After years of losing almost every week, I felt it would have been symbolic to see the likes of Honeyman, Gooch and McGeady who had been there through our slide down the leagues play a part in our revival.
Realistically, we are never going to get anywhere near winning the FA or The League Cup so I felt that not only getting promotion but winning a lower league cup would cement our place as the best team at that level and signal a new winning mentality throughout the club.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be and we failed on both counts; the following season rather than being a fun competition which would be nice to win, the rebranded Leasing.com Trophy became a crushing reminder that we were still very much a League One side, which was compounded by embarrassing defeats to Leicester Under 21’s and Scunthorpe.
Therefore you could be forgiven for thinking that my attitude to this season’s competition is even more dismissive with no fans being allowed in the ground, but given the club’s recent transformation, a cup win would be great for maintaining our momentum and be a boost for us all.
If the competition had been scrapped at the start of the season to ease fixture congestion, I wouldn’t have mourned.
If Phil Parkinson was still in charge and we were playing uninspiring football, sitting in 8th place and we’d got to the final I’d have been equally as uninterested.
However, with the new found optimism spreading throughout the club, Sunderland games have gone from being a continuation of the tedium of our lives to genuine excitement for the next game to come around.
In recent weeks, we have won a number of games that it would’ve been ‘typically Sunderland’ to lose.
After the high of reaching the final, we won 3-0 away at in-form Burton and beat Fleetwood for the first time, with old manager Simon Grayson in the away dugout.
We have also come from behind to gain a last gasp draw at Crewe, edged past Swindon in a nervy encounter, confidently and swept aside Rochdale, before an excellent result and performance at Portsmouth got us all believing that this side is equipped for promotion.
Sunday’s final would be an opportune time to further disregard our past failures and break our Wembley curse.
Whatever you think of the Papa John’s Trophy, Sunderland have not won anything other than promotion since 1973, losing seven times at the home of football since then.
So let’s hope we can really signal the dawn of a new era by getting another monkey off our back by getting that all-important Wembley win, and who knows? We might get to taste that winning feeling again in the coming years, but this time we’ll all be together and the prize will be much bigger.