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Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Semi Final - Second Leg - Hillsborough

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Opinion: The real Sunderland stood up to be counted at Hillsborough – next stop Wembley!

Alex Neil’s team showed all of the qualities we expect in from Sunderland players, and as Joseph Tulip writes, we got our just rewards on Monday.

Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

It was a game that had everything: a brutal, tense footballing battle, at the end of which players left the field with cut eyes and bloodstains on their shirts.

This was not a game for the faint-hearted, but not only did Sunderland win what was by the far the biggest game of our season so far, our players also proved that the soft centre that has hindered our promotion challenges in recent campaigns has been well and truly toughened up.

The sheer level of commitment to the cause, for over one hundred minutes, was remarkable. Indeed, Bailey Wright, when interviewed after the game, took pride in highlighting the way our players put their bodies on the line time and time again.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One - Play Off - Semi Final - Second Leg - Hillsborough Photo by Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images

To a man, they were outstanding, as they withstood wave after wave of Sheffield Wednesday pressure at various stages of the game. The tireless chasing, the tackles, the blocks- and double blocks, in the case of Danny Batth on one crucial occasion - were a testament to the commitment of this group of players, and the belief instilled in them by Alex Neil.

It wasn’t just the physical side of the game - which was put to the ultimate test in Sheffield last night - that got us over the line.

We maintained a ruthless focus throughout, which was absolutely crucial, given the determination of Wednesday’s forwards to take advantage of any lapse in concentration.

Yes, we conceded a goal. Yes, there were spells when our passing could have been better, but what impressed me the most was our players’ commitment to 50/50 challenges, their willingness to cover for each other and to run that little bit further in pursuit of victory.

It was no surprise that, in the latter stages, the pace of the game had slowed down considerably with more space opening up, especially in the Wednesday half after Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts combined to restore our slender advantage in the tie.

Quite frankly, both sets of players had run themselves into the ground, and their efforts had been remarkable.

The subject of Clarke and Roberts brings me nicely to my next point – quality.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

A frantic semi-final isn’t always the best platform for great football, but the cream usually rises to the top, and it did when it mattered for Sunderland.

Just as they did during the home leg on Friday, Clarke and Roberts taunted Wednesday with their marauding runs once again, though I’ll admit that there were times in the second half where I was worried Clarke was trying to do too much with the ball and taking risks when a simple pass would do.

On a night when chances were at a premium, however, the young pair repaid the faith shown in them by their manager, to send the 2,000 visiting fans home in high spirits.

In truth, we could have scored more.

Alex Pritchard and Lynden Gooch contributed to our attacking moves, while also putting in a considerable shift defensively, and Luke O’Nien and Corry Evans again put themselves through the mill in the middle of the park.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

Up front, Ross Stewart continued to show Duracell levels of energy with another tireless performance, Dennis Cirkin was prepared to put his head on the line, and Anthony Patterson was both brave and commanding when called upon.

There’s a long way to go, but if anyone has any doubts about whether we’ve moved on from the dark days of 2017, when some players were seemingly going through the motions, to the promise shown under Jack Ross and Lee Johnson, when our soft underbelly was so often our downfall, last night felt like a watershed moment.

Let the players get bandaged up, and let them rest and recover over the coming days.

Whatever happens at Wembley, as long as we show the same work ethic, commitment, and never-say-die attitude, we really will take some beating!

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

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