There might be a lack of fans making the walk along Wembley way come Sunday but that is unlikely to dampen the spirits of Sunderland and Tranmere when they face off in the second Papa John’s Trophy final of the weekend on Sunday.
Both sides are bouncing at the current moment.
For Sunderland, a nervy playoff battle has given way to an automatic promotion push and maybe even a title shot. Under Lee Johnson, the Black Cats have seen a drastic improvement both on and off the pitch. With new owners still settling in, a trophy would go a long way to showing that times might be changing at the Stadium of Light.
As for Tranmere, under Keith Hill they are steadily putting together a promotion push sitting fourth, a single point off automatic promotion. They do have two games in hand on Cambridge in second and ultimately automatic promotion will be the goal. They are unbeaten in all competitions since defeat at home to Stevenage on February 9th and will be confident of a good showing on Sunday.
Route to the final
Tranmere also came second in their group which contained Port Vale, Wigan Athletic and Liverpool U23’s. Since then, they have emerged as the dark horse of the competition, with Manchester City U23’s, Leicester U23's and League One opposition, Peterborough and Oxford United, falling by the wayside on their route to Wembley.
While this season Sunderland and Tranmere are a league apart, last season they locked horns twice in League One.
The first of the two meetings was Phil Parkinson’s first game as Sunderland manager. His new players clearly had something to prove running out 5-0 at the Stadium of Light in a rare attacking display by Sunderland under his leadership.
The reverse fixture was more of a contest. Sunderland came out victorious but only by a single goal on a terrible pitch at Prenton Park.
Sunderland are in the midst of a defensive crisis with both first-choice centre backs Bailey Wright and Jordan Willis as well as first choice left back Denver Hume all on the treatment table. Add to that the impressive Dion Sanderson being cup-tied and it will be a makeshift back four on Sunday.
The good news is that Tom Flanagan continued his comeback with 30 minutes at Portsmouth on Tuesday. He looked shaky and should have given away a penalty so throwing him into a Wembley final may not be the greatest idea.
Lee Johnson will probably have little choice but to put him in alongside Luke O’Nein or Conor McLaughlin who is fit after injury. Callum McFadzean is a certainty at left-back, despite fans complaints. On the right it will most likely be Ex-Tranmere captain and current Black Cats skipper Max Power, but should McLaughlin start in the centre of defence, O'Nein will likely move to right back and Power will move into the centre of the park.
Josh Scowen has started in recent weeks alongside Carl Winchester who is cup tied. Lee Johnson confirmed that a brace on Grant Leadbitters shoulder injury provides enough protection for him to play. He and Power will be the most likely combination in the middle of the park.
In attack, Johnson confirmed that Aiden O'Brien will require a late fitness test after being subbed on Tuesday at Portsmouth with a hamstring strain.
Jordan Jones also requires a fitness test but Johnson has said he isn't confident he will start.
If either is deemed unfit Sunderland will most likely change to a 3-4-3 with McGeady and one of the above flanking Wyke in the centre. The formation change would make the back three Flanagan, McLaughlin and O'Nein with Lyndon Gooch coming in alongside McFadzean at wing back.
In defence 39-year-old Peter Clarke and former Crewe man George Ray will probably be the pair tasked with keeping Wyke quiet. Lee O’Connor at right back, who Tranmere fans have aired concerns about on numerous occasions will have the task of keeping tabs on McGeady but will likely get help from Liam Feeney to form a two-man defence on him. Feeney will line up alongside former Liverpool, Bolton and Blackpool midfielder Jay Spearing to form a two-man guard in front of the back four.
In attack a lot of the burden will fall on Kaiyne Woolery and Danny Lloyd to provide the width on a pitch size neither side will be used to playing on. Kieran Morris will be expected to dictate play in the number 10 role and either Paul Lewis who scored at Southend on Tuesday or the vastly experienced David Nugent will be expected to lead the line.
Players to watch
Sunderland are a team oozing with quality. The two obvious candidates are Charlie Wyke and Aiden McGeady who on current form might be the best two players in League One. However, Tranmere will have them well scouted and will likely double up on them.
This may give the likes of Jordan Jones more space. The Rangers loanee has been impressive since coming into the team, exciting fans with his speed and directness. With Sunderland likely to be forced to play in front of the Tranmere defence his movement in behind could prove a useful out ball.
He’s only a few games into his Sunderland spell but already his permanent signing would be a shrewd one.
James Vaughan sprung to mind due to his links to Sunderland which leave him with something to prove. But he has been ruled out of the game which is a big blow for Rovers.
Many Tranmere fans will feel that it will be their number 14 Kaiyne Woolery who will have the biggest effect. Like Jones, he is fast and direct and with him likely being up against Sunderland’s weak point Callum McFadzean, he might be a source of joy for the Birkenhead outfit.
Seven goals and three assists in 28 League Two games doesn’t look the greatest record but he has took a shine to this competition, scoring in every knockout game on their way to the final.
One big performance and he just might be immortalised in Tranmere history.
How to watch
Coverage for this one on Sky Sports starts at 14:30pm on Sunday with kick off at 15:00.