It's been one year since our second leg against Sheffield Wednesday in the 2022 League One Play-offs so we decided to revisit Sobs' match report.
Well, that was tense and nervous and everything else a semi-final second leg should be – but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It just wouldn’t be Sunderland to waltz through the two legs by a hatful of goals.
Alex Neil set his team up correctly, resisted the temptation to change things when legs began wobbling, and we were rewarded by a warriors’ display in the heart of our defence and some excellent skirmishing by our wide men. Back this up with generally solid and energetic stuff everywhere else, and only a momentary lapse with fifteen to go allowed Wednesday back into things. However, a neat little finish by Roberts after yet another jinking run into the box by Clarke four minutes into added time sorted us a Wembley trip. What scenes.
Our journey down was sent into chaos with something dodgy closing the M1 and rush-hour traffic near Pontefract holding us up further, then our bus’s satnav must have been set to “small car” as we negotiated backstreets of Sheffield that had never seen a vehicle that size. All of that made the journey time well over three hours, so there was no time for a pre-match nerve-settler and we found our seats to listen to the Wednesday playlist of local bands. Ironically, The Sherlocks couldn’t find the place in time to do their slot (they did half time instead) and we had to make do with music from The Thompson Twins, Pulp, and other steel city musos.
Neil stuck with Friday’s starting eleven as my nerves, which had been shredding all day, refused to settle down.
Gooch Wright Batth Cirkin
Roberts Evans O’Nien Clarke
..and a bench of Hoffmann, Hume, Doyle, Embleton, Neil, Broadhead, and Matete.
Pritch set things away, with us attacking the Kop End opposite our fans, and with us in our stripes. From the off, it was apparent that we weren’t going to sit back and soak up the pressure without having a go ourselves, and as a consequence the opening minutes saw a lot of head tennis and big hoofs forward from both sides. I think the ball got airsick. A packed house generated a great atmosphere on a clammy evening, and the noise was bouncing around the ground as the Sheffield folk tried to get their team to get level. It was my third semi-final there, and we’d won the previous two, so I was hoping that was a good omen. There was plenty of effort on the pitch, and plenty of crashing challenges from both side all over the place. Wednesday’s defenders had obviously been told to give Stewart a rough time, and as a result he got more nudges than a game of pinball. Wednesday eventually got the ball down and crossed from their left, but Wright flung himself into a challenge at the near post and took his first whack to the head as Patto dived gratefully on the loose ball.
Bannon was having a much more influential game than Friday, which wasn’t hard, and he got himself into a bit of a tizz when O’9 ratted away at him to win the ball – in fact, a couple of the home players got a bit upset as we chased them down. There wasn’t a shot for Patto to save in the first half, although he did gift the Owls a corner when a long ball into the area rolled along the ground and instead of picking it up, he let it graze his boot and went behind. Silly boy, but thankfully that was his only aberration all evening. There were a few hairy moments from a few corners, but Stewart was back to help out and our defenders flung themselves in the way of things, with Cirkin even tackling an opponent with his head in the six yard box, which brought cries for a penalty – you need to use your hand(s) for that, though, and we had another bumped head to worry about for a few seconds. Gooch was doing his usual tearing down the right, and he linked up well with Roberts, but, as with Clarke from the left, we couldn’t quite fashion a chance for Stewart. Wright took another whack, Batth headed clear again, and we started to get a grip of midfield, spending more time in the centre circle than on Friday. Evans was doing his usual calm stuff while Luke - well, he’s like a puppy that’s eaten a big bag of Haribo and washed it down with a gallon of Rich Energy drink (or one you can actually buy). He was flying about, tackling, winning headers he had no right to get near, and irritating his opponents – and also trying one or two things that he shouldn’t have, but we’ll forgive him that. There were three added minutes that carried on in the same vein, and I suspect all 20 outfield players were glad of a sit down when the break did arrive.
We wondered if there would be changes, but for once we in the seats weren’t crying out for them as we could see that what our team was doing was working. All we needed was a draw, and Wednesday’s attacks were floundering on the twin defensive rocks of Batth and Wright. Patterson actually had a save to make when an overhead kick was pretty much straight at him, then came a more challenging piece of work as he flung himself to his left to make a save. At the other end, Clarke ran at the box and seemed to go past a dozen opponents, but the lay-off was intercepted, then a back pass put their keeper in bother and he did very well to avoid Stewart with his clearance as our man few in to get in the way. As we defended a dead ball, their defender Hutchinson and Gooch clattered into each other and spent a while on the deck before their man was replaced and Gooch was back into the fray. A Roberts shot as he cut in from the right was saved comfortably, and then as we won a corner Pritch was pelted with stuff from the home fans, preventing him from taking the kick and using up more time. Well done, you eejits.
Then came what could have been a killer as Wednesday got away on their left and the low cross was perfect for Gregory to smack home on 74. Nowt Patto could have done about it, really, and it knocked the stuffing out of us fans for a while. We’d been the better, more incisive, side since the break, and it was a bit of a bugger to find ourselves level on aggregate. It seemed to get to the players as well, as for several minutes we were all over the shop, missing tackles, misplacing passes, and generally looking a bit lost. Not for long, thankfully, but long enough to have our nerves jangling again. Extra time, or would Darren Moore’s side really spoil things and get a second? More stalwart defending from Batth and Wright ensured they didn’t, and Roberts and Clarke began to find spaces as the Owls’ fullbacks tired. More clattering left more players needing attention, Batth, up for a corner, won the ball but his header bounced down and too close to the keeper for Stewart to get to. Ten minutes added, or did he say seven? Ten it was, so that was more than enough time for us to get the crucial goal, and that’s what happened. Clarke went down the left, left his two markers for dead and waltzed to the by-line in the box before hitting a low cross that Roberts, sneaking across the goal from the right, got his toe to, sending it beneath the keeper and in, sparking scenes of wild abandon up the Leppings Land End. Bloody marvellous – and still six and a bit minutes to go.
That should have been long enough for the home side to have a real go, but the stuffing had been knocked out of them, and we took to playing it about, keeping hold of the ball despite the screams of our fans to get a second. On came Matete, Doyle and Broadhead and off went Clarke, Pritch, and Roberts, very much a case of job very well done. They played out the remaining three minutes or so, with Matete somehow finding time to get booked. There was a false alarm as the ref blew rather dramatically for a throw and we prematurely celebrated for a few seconds, but the real thing came soon after and we celebrated long and loud as the players hugged each other as if they’d actually won a trophy- and I don’t blame them in the slightest. They ‘d worked their socks off, and fully deserved that moment of release, in the realisation that they’d achieved what they’d set out to achieve. Even our manager, not previously given to outbursts of elation, could be seen punching the air as he jumped about in celebration.
Job done, well played Lads.
Man of the Match? Not a dodgy performance by anyone on the night, but as I said at the top of the story, the two wide men were pests, and they combined to get our goal. However, I think it goes to one of our centre-backs for a muscular display which will put them in good stead for what Wycombe will throw at us on the 21st. As he’ll probably look more like Rocky Balboa for a couple of days after the battering he took, I’ll give it to Bailey “Donk” Wright.