WAS it a derby or wasn’t it? The answer, from a Sunderland perspective, is that it doesn’t matter a jot. Having seen off Newcastle United’s youngsters on a strange night at the Stadium of Light, the Black Cats find themselves two wins away from Wembley.

Sunderland’s latest victory over their Wear-Tyne rivals might have lacked the intensity and passion of their ‘six in a row’ successes, but ultimately, it was a means to an end. If it helps deliver some silverware at the end of March, it could come to be regarded as one of the most important derby wins of recent years.

From a Newcastle perspective, a four-goal defeat for their youth team hardly represented a serious embarrassment, indeed had they not conceded two late goals, their fans might have attempted to portray the night as a moral victory. Against seasoned League One opposition, the Magpies’ youngsters acquitted themselves reasonably well.

They would have led at the interval had Robbin Ruiter not kept out Callum Roberts’ strike, but Sunderland effectively settled things with two goals in three minutes at the start of the second half.

Both came from corners delivered by Chris Maguire, with the first seeing Kelland Watts deflect the ball into his own net and the second resulting in Charlie Wyke heading home from close range.

The hosts could cruise home from that point, with Maguire’s 78th-minute strike confirming their success. The home fans enjoyed singing, ‘We always win 3-0’, before Benji Kimpioka’s late strike made it four.

Their songs harked back to derbies of yesteryear, but it says much for the status of the North-East game that this season’s only meeting between Sunderland and Newcastle was played out like this. A glorified reserves game that neither team really wanted.

To Sunderland, the Checkatrade Trophy has been something of a nuisance from the word go, deflecting attention and playing resources from the real business of winning promotion from League One. Jack Ross has used the competition to blood some youngsters and provide game time to the fringe members of his squad, but with the fixture list beginning to become bloated because of postponements and abandonments, it remains a hindrance he could do without. That said, though, attitudes will shift as Wembley beckons.

Newcastle’s Checkatrade involvement has purely been at Under-21 level, but even that has led to a clash of priorities. Jamie Sterry and Sean Longstaff were both eligible for last night’s game, but having started last weekend’s FA Cup draw with Blackburn, Rafael Benitez opted to rest the duo ahead of next week’s replay at Ewood Park. It comes to something when Newcastle’s long-standing disdain for the cup competitions evens extends to the Checkatrade Trophy.

And so, at a half-empty Stadium of Light, we were left with a derby in name only. The travelling Newcastle fans, housed in the upper tier of an otherwise deserted North Stand, tried their best to generate some atmosphere by goading their red-and-white rivals from the word go. Sunderland’s supporters, just about filling two sides of the ground, responded in kind. But the whole thing felt rather forced, like a straight-to-DVD remake of a film that was once great.

Given the context, perhaps it should have been no surprise that the football was also something of a let down.

Newcastle’s youngsters would have been satisfied with a first half that passed with barely a chance being created, but given the strength of Sunderland’s starting line-up, with each and every outfield player having featured extensively in the first team this season, the lack of cohesion in the home ranks was a bitter disappointment.

Far too many first-half passes went astray, with Dylan McGeouch and Bali Mumba repeat offenders at the heart of midfield. Duncan Watmore, who was replaced at half-time, ran down a series of blind alleys on the left-hand side, Jerome Sinclair was barely involved at all on the opposite flank, and despite his £1m price tag, Wyke struggled to shake off the attention of Newcastle’s young centre-halves.

Nathan Harker saved Wyke’s early flicked header from McGeouch’s deflected cross and Mumba had a 38th-minute effort chalked off after Maguire ran the ball beyond the byline before pulling it back into the box. On the whole, though, Sunderland’s early attacking play lacked venom.

The Newcastle defence deserve a fair amount of credit for that, with 18-year-old full-back Oliver Wilson and 19-year-old centre-half Owen Bailey especially impressive. Calm in possession and extremely well-organised whenever they pressed in their own half, Newcastle’s youngsters displayed a poise and assurance that belied their lack of senior experience.

As the opening period wore on, they began to grow in confidence, and in Roberts, the only player in the visiting ranks with a first-team appearance to his name, they boasted a player with the pace and trickery to trouble the Sunderland defence.

Elias Sorensen came within inches of converting Roberts’ cross after he dispossessed McGeouch in the Black Cats box midway through the first half, and Ruiter was forced into a smart save when Roberts cut in from the left and drilled in a low shot that was sneaking in at the front post before the ball was turned behind.   

The visitors would certainly have been the happier at the interval, but their contentment disappeared less than three minutes after the break.

Immediately displaying more intensity than they had mustered in the whole of the first half, Sunderland came within inches of claiming the lead when Sinclair latched on to Wyke’s knockdown and drilled a low strike against the base of the right-hand post.

Maguire swung over the resultant corner, and an unsighted Watts deflected the ball past Harker from close to the penalty spot.

Newcastle almost claimed an immediate equaliser, with Roberts firing in a deflected shot that Ruiter saved with his legs, but when Sunderland swept upfield moments later, they swiftly doubled their lead.

Maguire might well have scored had Watts not atoned for his own goal with a magnificent sliding block, but the forward’s set-piece deliveries troubled the Newcastle defence all night, and having set up his side’s opener from a corner, he duly claimed his second assist in the space of three minutes.

For once, Newcastle’s marking was all over the place as Maguire swung the ball over from the right-hand corner flag, and Wyke was left with the simple task of heading home. It was the striker’s second goal since his summer move from Bradford, and represented another notable step on his road back to full sharpness.

With a two-goal cushion, Sunderland were able to cruise through the second half, and they capped their victory with two late goals.

Maguire picked up a loose ball on the right-hand side of the area, and while Harker got a hand to the striker’s angled shot, he was unable to keep it out.

A fourth goal arrived with four minutes left, with Kimpioka stealing ahead of his marker to head home after a deflected cross looped into the box.