Two fantastic Jon McLaughlin saves and an all-round resilient team performance means Sunderland are returning to Wembley to fight for League One promotion.
A stalemate against Portsmouth at Fratton Park means the Black Cats are in the League One Play-Off final awaiting the winner of Charlton and Doncaster Rovers’ tie which finishes on Friday.
Chris Maguire’s volley at the Stadium of the light proved enough to win the tie 1-0 on aggregate.
Sunderland restricted Portsmouth to only a handful of key chances, but every time Pompey broke down the Mackem defence, McLaughlin was there to deny them.
Jack Ross’ men didn’t park the bus and managed the game excellently, creating chances and causing the Portsmouth back four problems in both halves.
Sunderland looked the more composed, confident side in a fiery opening 20 minutes at Fratton Park.
Like the first-half clear cut chances were at a premium. Grant Leadbitter tested Craig MacGillivray with a speculative curler from 25 yards which Pompey’s stopper comfortably saved.
The only other early chance of note was George Honeyman completely missing a presentable Bryan Oviedo cross, after a great Sunderland move down the left.
Portsmouth’s first piece of inventive play came just before the half-hour mark. A clever ball in-between Tom Flanagan and Bryan Oviedo found Brett Pitman in space in the visitor’s box. Pitman’s cross was about a half-yard too far in-front of Oli Hawkins, who was free six yards out.
The Black Cats’ best chance of the half fell to Chris Maguire. He was played through on goal by a lofted ball over the top from Leadbitter. Maguire lobbed over MacGillivray only to slip over before he could shoot into an open goal.
Five minutes from half-time the hosts finally had the chance they were waiting for. Gareth Evans missed six yards out unmarked, heading downwards too close to McLaughlin. Sunderland’s keeper showcased brilliant reactions to save with his feet from point-blank range.
Moments later Matt Clarke hit the bar with a header. He was unmarked from a Blues corner but headed into the ground and saw his chance cannon up off the woodwork.
Poor play down Sunderland’s right led to another close-range chance for Hawkins five minutes after the break.
The strong target man was picked out by Lee Brown who escaped from Luke O’Nien, but headed too close to McLaughlin who was able to parry over.
An altercation between a Portsmouth fan and Luke O’Nien led to a long stoppage disrupting the flow of the game and the host’s momentum. O’Nien fell into the hoardings and appeared to be kicked by a fan as he tried to get back to his feet.
With a quarter of the game remaining McLaughlin made an even better stop. Another Pitman cross found substitute James Vaughan unmarked at the back-post, his downward header was blocked by McLaughlin’s feet.
Ross’ substitutions and Portsmouth nervousness helped the Mackems wrestle back control, with Sunderland enjoying plenty of territory late on.
Streetwise game management and some great individual goalkeeping was enough to see Sunderland hold-on and squeak through to the final.
A tense nervy tie ultimately came down to Maguire’s magic volley at the Stadium of Light.
Jon McLaughlin, 8/10: Showed great composure and leadership throughout, plus he made a vital save to deny Evans.
Luke O’Nien, 6/10: Looked nervy defensively, showed his quality on rare forrays forward, but was also lucky to get away with two penalty shouts
Alim Ozturk, 6/10: Also lacked confidence in defence, especially in dealing with balls into the channels, however the Turk dealt well in the main in his first focus of restricting Hawkins.
Tom Flanagan, 7/10: His passing left a lot to be desired again, but he was undoubtedly the most authoritative of the back four.
Bryan Oviedo, 7/10: Oozed class and composure in a chaotic game, the standout outfield player.
Lee Cattermole, 7/10: Did all the little things you take for granted with Cattermole in terms of his pressing and anticipation, but didn’t show enough quality in possession.
Grant Leadbitter, 6/10: Produced some of Sunderland’s most inventive passes and some key blocks, but was perhaps guilty of taking the safe option too often in possession.
Max Power, 6/10: Did ok in an alien position, at times his lack of pace stopped him capitalising on counter-attacking opportunities.
George Honeyman, 5/10: Barely in the game didn’t show enough composure when he had chances to attack.
Chris Maguire, 6/10: Started the game excellently, before slipping over a few times and dropping to periphery of the match.
Charlie Wyke, 5/10: A non-factor, dominated by Christian Burgess in their duel and uninvolved outside of being second to long balls.
(SUB) Lynden Gooch, 6/10: Barely involved as Portsmouth pushed the lads back.
(SUB) Lewis Morgan, 6/10: Similar to Gooch was brought on when Sunderland were focused on defending.
(SUB) Will Grigg, 7/10: Harassed and pressed excellently in the final minutes.
Man of the Match: Jon McLaughlin