Defensive robustness is now at our core
The first half was a very nervy affair, but we showed the type of defensive cohones under pressure that only Alex Neil has managed to embed into our SAFC squads across recent years.
A series of coaches and managers have tried and failed to do the same, but it really looks like Alex has got something of a spirit and togetherness in our backline, which is makeshift in terms of personnel at least in part. Alex has to be given credit for this, for sure.
Some things were consistent across both halves of the game, and Bailey Wright being immense in both periods was one of them, with him fully deserving the man of the match for me. Yes, he had to do some desperate defending, especially in the first half with his mate Danny Batth, but we made it to oranges without conceding.
Cirkin was lucky to not give away a penalty in the first 45 when many referees at this level may have done so, though he was very brave to stick his head in there to prevent a shot, when many of his predecessors would have backed out of making any challenge at all.
When under considerable pressure for the first half of this second tie, and for large rafts of the second stanza, we rallied, battled, and fought with all we had. This is something that we have to be happy with, and is a major differentiator to past SAFC sides across this period in the 3rd tier, in my view.
Lack of midfield control, until parts of the second period.
We have to acknowledge that the changes made by Darren Moore (who was a complete gent in his interview post the Hillsborough match, as he was after the Sunderland leg) for kick-off were very effective. We of course expected them to try to take the game to Sunderland in their home leg, which happened, and with interest.
Bannan seemed to make (or was maybe given) more space early on, and the introduction of Windass who had a similar effect late in the first tie meant the midfield play-makers of Sheffield were not closed down as well by the red and white shirts across our central third.
The third 45 minutes of the playoff sequence seemed to push Wednesday so much further up the pitch, which contributed to our struggles to build our own opportunities. O’Nien and Evans pitched in well though, and were very combative, but we still were second best at times, and in both periods. It was scrappy, but slightly in their favour on balance for large parts of the match.
In the second half, we had way more of the ball and control of possession early on. Sunderland were in my view better for the first 25 mins of the second period than they were for most of the first, but it was on about 75 mins that we conceded through a rare (these days) and momentary lapse of focus down our right side of midfield and defence. Despite the fact we were better than before the break, one good ball from Bannan after a deflected clearance, and they scored a well-finished goal.
Something that we haven't seen for some time then emerged, however; resilience. We haven’t seen that for what feels like forever, but it bubbled up against the roar of the Owls crowd who really got behind Wednesday after they drew the tie to a level 1-1 position.
We showed guts, belief, and a determination not to lose. We showed superior stamina, strength, and application of the system that has been set up and engrained into the players over the past 13-14 matches.
We did what we have done across the past dozen games better than anyone else in the league - we played all the way to the end, past 90 minutes, and right through the ten added on.
Along with the defensive guts and battle that Neil has planted in the DNA of our boys, this is the other single most effective change he has triggered for me - we never accept we are beaten. Again, we have to doff a cap to Alex Neil for this aspect of the game, as many a coach would have dumped the bench onto the pitch around 80 minutes to see if we could force an equaliser, or at least be ready for extra time. Not Alex Neil.
Alex displayed a huge amount of guts and showed he had faith in the lads that they could do what was needed, as he touched on in the post-match interview, and we were rewarded for his confidence in his starting 11 against their tiring opponents.
That is a coaching mindset and level of confidence in his team that I think we have never seen at this level, and it is fantastic to witness, right at the perfect time in our season.
The fact he has this level of knowledge about his team and that it exists after such a short tenure bodes well for his future in the position. If he can do what he has in this period of time, pass or fail at Wembley, the future looks bright with him at the wheel.
Periods of Over Complication
While we got the aggregate win and in doing so Roberts and Clarke were great at times, and I accept Pat scored a cracking goal which he had to bust a gut for in stoppage time, there were occasions when I wished he and at times young Clarke would pass rather than taking on another player.
The sign of a quality player is knowing when to take another man on, and when to ship it, and they both need to learn from early experiences of that choice at Hillsborough.
Partly due to only semi-successful journeys into the opposition third, Clarke also left Cirkin exposed a couple of times too. He needed to track back better from time to time, to complement his attacking jinks.
Reflecting on all that though, both lads ended up having a decent game in the end and were immense in that last ten minutes. They combined to create and score the deciding goal we all celebrated so much, and without them, we may not be planning our hotels and trains as we now are. If we over-rely on isolated defenders at Wembley though, we may well live to regret it, so something for the gaffer to work on while we recuperate up to the 21st.
None of this matters. Pat got us a ticket to Wembley!
I have to say I am over the moon for Roberts. Apart from the minor point of potential improvement mentioned above, he had a great day and really showed us what he can do in terms of taking on men, drawing fouls in good places, and playing genuine attacking football.
As Wednesday tired well into the 90-oddth minute, the lads once again kept the faith and found space and time through a lapse of focus on the Wednesday rear right. Clarke’s cut back from the byline to set up the effervescent Roberts, who arrived at an incredible rate of knots so late in the game and (finally) put his foot through one meaning we are off to Wembley one more time. It was one of the very few clear-cut chances we created, but clearly, we don’t need a lot, as we did it.
After his recent years not really being able to break into a first team, I am chuffed to bits for young Pat. For me, he has done enough to stay with us as part of the team we build for the future. With a full pre-season and a chance to play at the next level up next time around, which is more where his type of skill level would do well (as is the case for Pritchard, Neil, and others), he is going to be one to watch for the coming few years.
For me, the club needs to watch those two playoff games back, and use those to decide who may deserve a new contract post-Wembley. Gooch has been immense too despite being out of position. They have all done themselves no harm at all, that is for certain.
Did we deserve the win across the two ties?
I would have to agree with the panel on Sky and confirm that we definitely did.
The resilience and opportunism we showed in the first tie to nick a one goal lead from the only defensive error in the playoff sequence were actually less of a lead than we deserved, but ultimately was enough.
The dogged and determined defence away in front of over 30k opposition fans, putting blood sweat, and tears on the pitch for the shirt and for the thousands of fans who turned up home and away is another level of SAFC grit and guts that I have missed sorely and for some time.
The creativity in midfield is perfectly complemented by combative closing and breaking up of play by Evans, O’Nien, and Matete. The never say die attitude of Nathan Broadhead and Ross Stewart, grabbing and converting the slimmest of chances. The defensive craft of Cirkin and Gooch, and the rock of Batth and Wright. There is an essence in this team that I haven’t seen for many a year.
People were disappointed when we didn't appoint Roy Keane as the new gaffer, but at times like this, I am very happy the club made the decision it did. Alex Neil could well be the new Peter Reid, which is a big statement for me to make as a frequent match-goer across the late 80s and 90s. Like Peter, Alex is a no-nonsense football bloke, who wants football played with heart, passion, and commitment for the club. Pep Guardiola he is not, but he will do for me for this season, and for several to come.
One more game to go. I can’t wait to get this job done. See you all at Trafalgar Square!