Sunderland’s former owner Sir Bob Murray once likened the team’s home to a fabulous theater, filled with wonderful audiences who were consistently let down by some awful actors.
Alex Neil’s players are striving to prove exceptions to that rule and did not disappoint a crowd of 44,742 at the Stadium of Light. It was a record attendance for an English Football League semi-final playoff and the majority present delighted in watching Ross Stewart give Sunderland a slender advantage ahead of Monday night’s second leg in South Yorkshire.
Granted, after a slow start, the Wearsiders should have extended their lead during a much improved second half but, much as Sheffield Wednesday harbor genuine hope of turning the tie around, Neil has tightened his defense appreciably in recent weeks. Anthony Patterson, the home goalkeeper, was not required to make a single serious save.
“I thought we were excellent in such a phenomenal, high pressure, atmosphere,” said Neil. “I’m just disappointed we didn’t score more. We controlled the game. Our defensive structure has been excellent for quite a few games now. I’m confident. This club’s potential is why I came here. ”
Darren Moore, Wednesday’s manager, declined to attend the post-match press conference but sent a one sentence quote: “We just had to make sure we stayed in the game,” he said. “And that’s what we’ve done.”
Two hours before kick-off the amount of traffic slowing to a crawl on the stadium’s main approach roads felt reminiscent of the days when Sunderland were a Premier League club. By the time the game actually got under way, and hope and fear collided in the minds of supporters of two of England’s dozier sleeping giants, the atmosphere was electric.
In the 16 games since Neil succeeded the sacked Lee Johnson Sunderland have lost only once yet Wednesday initially, deceptively, looked more composed. Barry Bannan used his intelligence, experience and sheer nous to slow things down in midfield, persistently frustrating the home team’s attempts to build time and momentum.
If Moore could be pleased with the way in which his team retained their 3-5-2 shape for much of the first half, Neil must have been disappointed with Sunderland’s failure to make the most of plentiful possession by properly testing Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s reflexes .
With Sam Hutchinson, once of Chelsea, making some important early interceptions in his role as the left-sided component of Moore’s defensive trinity and his teammates evidently conscious that there was no point in taking too many risks ahead of the return leg at Hillsborough, an early stalemate set in.
It started to turn elements of the crowd slightly impatient before wholesale nervousness briefly intruded as Wednesday’s Liam Palmer crossed in Lee Gregory’s direction. In the event Gregory failed to make a true connection and Patterson gathered easily but perhaps that near miss galvanized Sunderland because, very shortly afterwards, they assumed a moral bolstering lead.
With half-time beckoning a suddenly strangely hesitant Hutchinson appeared to get his feet in a horrible, uncharacteristic, tangle as he attempted to make a routine clearance near the halfway line and, sensing opportunity, Stewart seized the moment, pinching possession from the mortified defender .
It left the striker clean through accelerating towards goal and, although Peacock-Farrell saved his initial shot, Stewart made no mistake in steering the rebound home from a tight angle. The celebratory roar was so loud it could probably be heard 15 miles up the road in Newcastle.
Stewart’s 25th goal of the season seemed to infuse his teammates with new found adrenaline and confidence and early in the second period Alex Pritchard, once of Tottenham, sent a shot bending and dipping on to the crossbar.
With Patrick Roberts, once a Manchester City winger, now de-stabilizing Wednesday’s rearguard almost at will, the suddenly busy Peacock-Farrell tipped another Pritchard shot to safety while Danny Batth went close with a header. Moore replaced the near anonymous Saido Berahino with Josh Windass in attack but still Sunderland dominated. Yet although Roberts directed a swerving shot fractionally wide and, in a rare home panic, Danny Batth was required to head Bannan’s stoppage-time corner clear, there were to be no more goals at the ground Murray built.