And so, it’s onwards to Wembley.
After navigating our way through two nerve-shredding legs against a fellow grand old club in Sheffield Wednesday, Alex Neil will attempt to succeed where Jack Ross failed in 2019.
If the abrasive Scot can finally exorcise the demons of playoff finals past, and lead Sunderland back to the Championship after four seasons of third-tier football, he will elevate himself to hero status among the red and white faithful. For a man who was parachuted in on a mid-season salvage job, it really would be the sweetest conclusion of all.
The challenge of Wycombe Wanderers, and their brutal-but-effective style of play, will hold no fear for Neil, nor for the players, and as the red and white hordes stride down Wembley Way on May 21st, they will be able to do so in the knowledge that this team can certainly deliver what we all crave.
On an emotionally fraught night at Hillsborough, this game yielded several images that will live long in the memory.
Alex Neil roaring with joy at another late winner; a battered and bloodied Bailey Wright standing, warrior-like, as the minutes ticked down, and the travelling fans sent into raptures by another late, late winner. These moments truly encapsulated what it means to support this club- from potential heartbreak to elation with one swing of the boot.
Despite our dismal history in the end-of-season shootout, this particular playoff semi final had an altogether different feel to those of seasons past.
Trepidation was replaced by optimism, and coming into the tie as the form team, we genuinely believed that we could do it, as opposed to clinging on to a vague hope of success.
Friday night’s game showcased the Stadium of Light at its raucous best, as 44,000 turned the stadium into a riot of colour and noise. The players undoubtedly channelled that energy and the 1-0 scoreline did not do justice to our dominance. Afterwards, the only worry was whether the advantage would be enough.
At Hillsborough on Monday, it was a role reversal.
A fervent home crowd, a team desperate to overturn the deficit, and an overwhelming need for those in red and white to stand strong. When Lee Gregory stabbed home the equalising goal, that need became even greater, as our resilience was tested to its limits.
This version of Sunderland, however, is made of sterner stuff. We do not crumble, and we can dig deep when needed. All of the most organic qualities: organisation, resilience and discipline, were displayed as we fought to regain the advantage.
This was a night for a new hero to emerge, and as he stabbed home a cross from Jack Clarke - who had blown hot and cold all evening - Patrick Roberts grabbed that mantle and demonstrated why he can be such a crucial player for us. It was a big goal, from a big-game player.
Taking a step back from the unremitting drama of this semi final, there is no doubt that 2021/2022 has been a season of transition, much turbulence, and genuine optimism.
It has been a campaign during which results have fluctuated, our promotion hopes have risen and fallen, and unrest regarding the ownership situation has rarely been far from the conversation.
Lee Johnson’s reign, filled with flashes of promise but pockmarked by a handful of bruising defeats and erratic performances, was cut short in February, and in came Neil, a hired gun with a single aim- to sustain a promotion push by hook or by crook. Now, he is within one game of achieving it.
The run of results on which we embarked following his arrival was exceptional and had that form been replicated over an entire season, automatic promotion would’ve been secured and the planning for next season would’ve begun in earnest.
Even if we were to fall short in the final, there does seem to be a growing consensus that Neil is the right fit for us at this moment in time.
His impact has been enormous, and the no-nonsense ethos he has instilled fits this club like a glove. You only had to witness his celebrations on Monday night for proof of how much he has invested into the team, and what it means to him to lead us into the final.
For now, we can reflect on a job well done, before training our sights on London and the final game of the season.
On a fraught, nervy night in South Yorkshire, this young and inexperienced team came of age and represented our club with pride. On May 21st, under the Wembley arch, they could write their names into the history books, and that ought to give them the impetus to finish the job.