The revamped Checkatrade Trophy invited 16 teams from clubs with Category One Academies to compete in the 2016/17 edition.Taking their place alongside the 48 clubs from Sky Bet League One and Sky Bet League Two, the new format – which included the return of group stages to replace a straight knock-out – provided teams with an opportunity to blood young players over a minimum of three games.
One of those clubs taking part for the first time were Sunderland U21, who were pitted against Rochdale, Notts County, and their north-east neighbours Hartlepool United.
Robbie Stockdale, manager of the young Black Cats, believes the Checkatrade Trophy has had huge benefits for his squad, with the challenge of facing seasoned professionals offering a very different test to the ones they experience against other development sides.
“From our point of view, the tournament was very beneficial to the programme of development for our players,” said Stockdale, who came through Middlesbrough's Academy before embarking on a 15-year playing career.
“Our players train regularly with the seniors at Sunderland, but to have a game with a crowd under floodlights in a cup competition made it feel more different. There was certainly more emphasis on winning than maybe a Premier League 2 game would be.
“Of course you can put those scenarios in training, and against senior opposition, but to actually have that competitive edge was really important, and it is something that is not easy to put into the programme for our younger players, or at any club.”
Sunderland's opening match back in August saw them draw 1-1 away at Rochdale, with teenage midfielder Elliot Embleton on the scoresheet. They then edged past Hartlepool United 1-0, before a remarkable late comeback saw them defeat Notts County, inspired by 18-year-old forward Josh Maja.
Through as runners-up in the group, a penalty shoot-out loss to fellow U21 outfit, Wolverhampton Wanderers, ended the run. Lessons were learned in all four outings, though, and it stood the players in good stead – David Moyes saw enough to introduce some to the first team.
"When you watch the development squad against senior opposition in a competitive nature, you certainly get more of a feel of 'can that player cope with that?' Physically, some of our players were left wanting, quite frankly, and that is great to see in one way, as those players now know what they need to improve on and the level that they might need to get to.
“We have managed to bring a few through this year. We went into the EFL Cup and played two boys who have played in the Checkatrade Trophy, so the manager was confident after watching them against Rochdale, Hartlepool and Notts County that they could step up to the physical aspect of it.
“Our players came away from the games with a better understanding of what it takes to be a success at that level. They all want to break into our first team and train regularly with our seniors. The Checkatrade Trophy ticks all the boxes for us as a development tool.”
Other views from the dugout:
"We had three really competitive games. The players got great exposure for themselves and got the opportunity to take on a professional, competitive team."
- David Unsworth, Everton U21 manager
"It gave us the opportunity to play a number of young players in the early rounds, which is a huge positive for Bolton Wanderers and the players that we want to produce."
- Phil Parkinson – Bolton Wanderers first-team manager