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Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg

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Opinion: Another late late show typifies this new Sunderland

Sunderland’s playoff success against Sheffield Wednesday in the steel city showed the Black Cats now have the mettle to go all the way.

Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

In some ways, our performance at Hillsborough was typical Sunderland but in so many others it was a clear indication of a new resolve and determination that has so long been missing.

If any of the teams of the past decade had conceded the goal in the middle of the second half, it would almost certainly have spelled defeat with heads dropping and panic setting in. As fans, we would have had that sinking feeling that we all too often experienced. Indeed, we have seen some capitulations in this season before the arrival of Alex Neil.

However what Monday night showed was this is a team that is built of sterner stuff and a squad that will fight to the last for the manager, their teammates, and more importantly the shirt they are wearing.

Bailey Wright and Danny Batth were simply immense. Here we have two tall physical defensive rocks who won challenge after challenge and were not afraid of putting their body where they knew it was going to hurt. But it wasn’t just the central defensive duo who were willing to take a bruise for the cause.

To see Dennis Cirkin trying to head a ball away when it was on the ground knowing there was a Wednesday striker looking to put his shoelaces through it was typical of a new attitude, and it clearly comes from Neil.

Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 1st Leg Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

There were periods of the first half where Wednesday threatened to take a grip of the game but Neil used half time to tell the team a few home truths and get them back to playing the way he wanted to.

Take Jack Clarke. His natural instinct to drive forward with the ball but on occasion in the first half he was leaving Cirkin exposed. Second half he changed his role. He was tracking back and when he got the ball it was clear he’d been told, along with the rest of the team, to keep hold of it and take the sting out of the game.

Barry Bannan will have nightmares featuring Luke O’Nien for weeks as he tracked the playmaker through the two games and gave him little room, leaving him a desolate figure come the final whistle.

Bannan was instrumental in the equaliser, but far from past occasions when Sunderland would have collapsed the goal actually saw Sunderland simply up their game. As Wednesday lost their heads and hunted the winner, the Lads simply kept theirs, moved the ball, and looked increasingly threatening on the counter.

And once again they decided to strike the killer blow late, leaving Wednesday with just five injury time minutes to carve a chance to take the match to extra time.

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

The pass out of the back was brilliant, releasing Clarke who stood his defender up, breezed by him, and crossed to find Roberts had ghosted in front of the defender to fire home.

It was telling that, after the game, it was clear Neil wasn’t in the least bit surprised. It was encouraging to hear him say that he had not thought to change the team for change's sake when Wednesday scored, that he wasn’t going alter the team as they were doing what he expected.

Neil added that as a coaching team that they plan for each and every side their face and as such the starting eleven will change and the players know that and are happy to step aside for the greater good of the team. That speaks volumes about the positive state of the dressing room.

I was delighted when we appointed Neil and I always thought he was a good coach, but the way he has shaped this team in the space of three and half months has been brilliant Wycombe won’t be a pushover, but they face a team that never says die.

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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