Sunderland will face Sheffield Wednesday in next weekend’s Sky Bet League One play-off semi-final, after sealing their place in the top six with a 1-0 victory over Morecambe at the Mazuma Stadium on the final day of the season.
It was far from the perfect display from Alex Neil’s side, but Nathan Broadhead’s 10th-minute finish proved to be the only goal of the game, but in rather distressing scenes for the Sunderland head coach, the striker was forced off only 14 minutes later.
All in all, the Black Cats dominated the possession tallies, but largely did very little with it, as Ross Stewart and Patrick Roberts both went close in the second half, but Broadhead’s strike was enough.
It sets up a gigantic play-off semi-final clash next weekend, as Darren Moore’s side will travel to the Stadium of Light in the first leg on Friday night, whilst the Black Cats make the trip to Hillsborough on Monday evening, to decide who faces either MK Dons or Wycombe in the final at Wembley on Saturday 21st May.
It was a very attacking line-up named by Alex Neil for their final-day showdown with the Shrimps, as the Sunderland head coach made three changes from Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Rotherham.
Patrick Roberts, Elliot Embleton and Alex Pritchard all returned to the starting 11, but these changes to the starting 11 was rather over-shadowed by the return of Aiden McGeady, who made a place on the bench, after stepping up his return to first team football over the last couple of weeks.
Yet for all of Sunderland’s attacking prowess, it was a fairly open start, and one where Morecambe saw more of the ball, and seemed more comfortable moving it forward.
But, with the Black Cats’ first attack of the match, they found the ultimate reward.
A rather signature move from the Black Cats on away ground saw them take a pivotal lead at the Mazuma Stadium - Evans slipped the ball through to Nathan Broadhead, who was able to coolly roll it into the bottom right corner.
An absolutely significant early start on a massively significant contest, and in the immediate aftermath, Sunderland sought to build upon their lead, as Alex Pritchard’s long-range free-kick was drifted wide of the right post.
But, in truth, minus that opportunity, Trevor Carson in the Morecambe goal was very rarely troubled, but contrastingly, at the other end of the pitch, the Shrimps did very little to trouble Anthony Patterson, despite their pressure in the final third.
Dylan Connolly fired an effort over the bar from close range, but Derek Adams’ side would have breathed a huge sigh of relief - Alex Neil the very opposite - as Nathan Broadhead stumbled off in a damming blow for the Black Cats’ playoff chances.
Without the Everton-loanee, Neil’s side continued to dominate the possession counts, but were far too loose in it: their composure eluding them at the pivotal moments, and Morecambe began to build in-roads into the context.
It felt like a similar script to the first half for the away side, but they proved a difficult outlet to break down from Morecambe’s perspective, whilst the same could be said at the other end of the pitch.
No doubt, the half-time interval for both camps would have been left looking at the scores around the country: Morecambe knowing that safety was only 45 minutes away with Fleetwood and Gillingham both dropping points, and Sunderland knowing that the play-offs were all but assured with ten-man Plymouth having to overturn a three-goal deficit to MK Dons in the second half.
Still, after the break, Sunderland controlled the match with the ball, and stepped up the tempo in the final third, and almost doubled their lead.
Clarke’s cut-back to Ross Stewart was deflected wide of the right post by the striker before Corry Evans curled a timid effort into the gloves of Carson.
Yet, Sunderland, arguably, looked the more likely to net the second goal of the match, and probably should have put the game out of sight, as a superb attacking move, involving Embleton, Pritchard, and Roberts, resulted in the latter’s effort being blocked by the legs of Carson.
It was a rather lacklustre end to the match - almost a typical end-of-season affair, with both sides content on their finishing position in the table.
Morecambe sent bodies forward, as Stockton’s dink into the penalty area was almost met by Jonathan Obika at the back post, but the angle proved too tight.
But, Morecambe could do no more to claim a final point on the last day of their season, but in truth, they didn’t need to: Fleetwood’s 4-2 defeat to Bolton, and Gillingham’s 2-0 defeat to Rotherham, were good enough to secure their safety.
Whilst, for Sunderland, it’s not over.
We will face Sheffield Wednesday in the semi-finals of the Sky Bet League One Play-Offs. #SAFC— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) April 30, 2022
After weeks of uncertainty, their play-off certainty is finally confirmed, but a gigantic week awaits. The form is behind the Black Cats, but their play-off semi-final is a battle of the two end-of-season form teams, and it’s set up to be an absolutely gigantic two-legged affair.
The optimism of the late-season playoff push, and the victory over Morecambe, though, has been rather subdued with the loss of Nathan Broadhead, a key figure over the past couple of weeks.
It’s all made to be a massive week in the build-up to Friday’s first leg at the Stadium of Light, perhaps having the opening leg on home turf may favour the Black Cats, but maybe it won’t.
From the lows of January and February for the club, Sunderland’s promotion hopes were viewed as all but over, but now the Black Cats are resurgent. All of our promotion aspirations are now encapsulated into two matches.
Let the play-off lottery begin!