Nathan Broadhead scored a 92nd-minute winner for Sunderland, as they kept up the pace in the Sky Bet League One play-off battle, with a narrow 3-2 victory over Shrewsbury Town at the Stadium of Light on Good Friday.
It was looking like the Black Cats had squandered a two-goal advantage, when two goals in the space of eight minutes from Josh Vela and former-Black Cat, Tom Flanagan, had put the Shrews back on level terms.
With around twenty minutes on the clock, Alex Neil’s side looked like they were cruising to another significant victory in the top six battle, as superb strikes from Elliot Embleton and Broadhead early on, had put the home side within the ascendency.
For another gameweek, the Black Cats were forced to leave it late, but the relief upon the full-time whistle proved to be huge - they moved three points ahead of Sheffield Wednesday, who face MK Dons in a huge televised match on Easter Saturday, and only two points behind fourth-placed Plymouth, who lost two-nil to fellow play-off battling Wycombe and are Sunderland’s next opponents at Home Park on Monday afternoon.
With only five matches left of the regular season, the play-off battle could be ultimately decided by the strength and depth of each of the squads in the fight for the top six - Alex Neil flexing his own squad, by making two changes heading into this contest.
Alongside the start of Luke O’Nien for captain Corry Evans, Elliot Embleton was rewarded for two successive impressive cameos from the bench against Gillingham and Oxford and started ahead of Patrick Roberts.
And, only four minutes into this Good Friday encounter, that selection from Neil paid dividends in superb style, as Sunderland took an early lead.
The original free-kick from Broadhead was fired straight into the wall, but the rebound was volleyed beautifully into the top right corner by Embleton.
In the context of both gameplans, that opening goal was proving crucial early on as Shrewsbury, although content to sit in, attacked with some poise, whilst the home side was keen to counter ruthlessly.
However, in the immediate aftermath, it was Sunderland who continued to push, and their attacking play was simply a joy to watch; after some good build-up around the penalty area, Matete fired wide from distance.
In possession, Alex Neil’s side were, for the most part, completely dominant, and in the early stages, the confidence from last weekend’s victory over Oxford being clear, as only nine minutes after the first, the Black Cats doubled their lead.
Cirkin’s shot wasn’t fully saved by Marko Marosi and allowed Broadhead to drill the ball low and hard into the bottom left corner. It was another brilliant strike, and Sunderland were cruising.
We continued to look in control of the contest, as Gooch’s curling effort drifted narrowly wide of the left post, but suddenly, the tide began to turn.
In Dan Udoh and Ryan Bowman, Steve Cotterill has two strikers that have been proven goal-scorers in this campaign, with 27 goals between them, and much of Shrewsbury’s pressure came from when they began to play the ball to the feet of the forward two.
A lack of confidence began to seep into the Black Cats’ play, and combined with sloppy passes and weak touches, Shrewsbury saw an avenue back into this matchup.
Before the interval, Bowman had the ball in the back of the net, after a brilliant attacking move from the visitors allowed George Nurse to square to the Shrewsbury striker, but the Shrews’ second top-scorer was in an offside position.
A potential let-off for Sunderland, but only moments later and the away side, and Bowman threatened again - his effort was wrapped just around the right post, with Udoh waiting in the centre.
The half-time interval should have been a circuit-breaker for Alex Neil but, instead, Cotterill’s side halved the deficit only five minutes into the second 45. Shrewsbury moved the ball with pace and conviction, and a brilliant counter-attacking move featuring Udoh and Bowman, before Josh Vela side-footed into the bottom right corner, after Nurse’s cut-back.
Suddenly, Sunderland were on the ropes and, only eight minutes later, the Shrews were level. The Black Cats allowed Matt Pennington to peel away from his marker, but his header was blocked by the head of Matete, before the rebound was volleyed home by - guess who? - yes, Tom Flanagan on his return to the Stadium of Light.
Shrewsbury seemed to have the greater desire, threat, and confidence, as miraculously, the game was slipping out of the grasp of the home side, and the mood inside of the Stadium of Light was beginning to drastically change.
Partial cheers for the removal of Lynden Gooch for Roberts, and murmurs on the introduction of Corry Evans, just some of the dissatisfaction from the home faithful, but the latter’s role proved key in swinging the match back into the favour of the home side.
Despite some criticism over recent weeks, Evans strengthened a midfield battle that Sunderland were losing, and allowed us to make forward steps into their final third.
The clock ticked down to another potential late show, but chances were still falling our way, as, after good play from Broadhead to keep a dwindling attacking move alive, Stewart hammered his effort against the crossbar from close range.
The two linked up again only minutes before the original 90 was up, but again, Stewart was to be denied, as his flick from Broadhead’s pass was clawed away by Marosi in the Shrewsbury goal.
But, you always felt this match had one last chance, and Sunderland would be able to steal the three points. Late drama has been indented into their DNA of late, so when the Stadium of Light was sent into delirium two minutes into added time, it was arguably little shock.
Clarke’s cross was floated into the penalty area, and slight contact from the head of Broadhead, combined with questionable goalkeeping from Marosi allowed Alex Neil’s side to win it at the death.
Yet another late show for the Black Cats; they’re not making it an easy watch, but they’re pulling through when it matters the most. As Neil rightly pointed out post-match, Sunderland, without a doubt, showed “the best and the worst” of their characteristics, but still managed to come through.
With Plymouth dropping three points in the play-off picture (yes, albeit to fellow challengers, Wycombe), an Easter Monday clash with Pilgrims takes on a greater meaning.
A win for Sunderland would accelerate us a point ahead of Steven Schumacher’s side, having played a game less, and possibly put us into the driving seat for a confirmed top-six spot.
Yet even then, a victory for either Plymouth or Sunderland still wouldn’t be defining in the play-off battle, as there are still some huge games ahead in the final two weeks of the campaign.
So strap yourselves in, perhaps even tighten your seatbelt, as this League One season is about to reach a stunning conclusion.