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

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When the prize is greatest, Sunderland can dig deep and emerge victorious - one more to go!

During recent months, Sunderland have shown that they can carve out opportunities to win games in adverse circumstances. This sets us in good stead for the playoff final.

Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The mark of any sportsperson- or sports team- with dreams of success is the ability to dig deep, to maintain their composure, and to find that little bit extra when the momentum seems to be swinging away from them.

Whether it is the darts player who checks out on 138 to win a set with his opponent sitting on double top, the tennis player who bangs down an ace when facing breakpoint, or the football team who are searching for a last-minute goal and comes up trumps, it often comes down to the deepest reserves of resilience to find that one moment of inspiration.

Prior to Alex Neil’s arrival, Sunderland were a skillful, enterprising team with youthful vigour aplenty.

We had shown moments genuine of promise during the first half of the season, and when we were able to play our preferred game, we often looked like a team who could mount a sustained automatic promotion challenge.

Whether it was the 3-1 victory over Wycombe at a sun-drenched Stadium of Light, or the 5-0 hammering of Sheffield Wednesday, there were times when it all came together beautifully, and we played football that was both attractive and effective.

Sunderland v Wycombe Wanderers - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Unfortunately, our glaring weaknesses during this time were a tendency to concede goals in clusters, an inability to manage games against physical opponents, and a lack of steel that would enable us to turn games around when the tide was turning.

Perhaps this was an inevitable byproduct of fielding a team with a lower average age, and although Lee Johnson certainly did a lot of good during his time in charge, it was obvious that there were flaws in his masterplan, and they were often exposed as we endured a handful of heavy defeats, particularly away from home.

There is no doubt that Alex Neil has changed that for the better, and as we broke away to score what turned out to be the winner at Hillsborough last week, his exuberant celebrations on the touchline were those of a man who never lost faith that his men would deliver.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As we have often found out to our cost since 2018, success in this league is often reliant on the kind of qualities that statistics alone cannot quantify.

XG numbers, possession percentages and heat maps are all well and good, but the characteristics on which Sunderland bosses have placed such a high premium- resilience, organisation, and fitness- are equally, if not even more important.

These attributes weren’t completely lacking under Johnson, but Neil has placed them front and centre, and has been rewarded handsomely. He has stripped away the fripperies and reshaped the team in his own image: abrasive, hard-bitten, streetwise, and the net result has been a revelation.

It is not a coincidence that our run to the playoff final has been driven in no small part by a refusal to give up the fight, and a knack of scoring late winning goals with regularity.

Patrick Roberts’ winner against Sheffield Wednesday was proof of this. At that particular stage in the game, Jack Clarke could’ve run the ball into the corner and played for time, but he backed himself, took his man on, slid the ball to Roberts, and the rest is history.

Sheffield Wednesday v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Play-Off Semi Final 2nd Leg Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

During our league matches against the likes of Crewe and Shrewsbury, we were able to weather frustration and shifts in momentum, and carve out chances that ultimately led us to victory.

When we walk out to face Wycombe at Wembley on the 21st of May, we can do so in the knowledge that their physical threat can be dealt with, their spoiling tactics can be negotiated, and that they won’t be able to simply kick their way to victory.

It is testament to the work of Neil and his staff that we are in such a position ahead of the game. The belief he has instilled in everyone, players and fans alike, is incredibly strong, and hopefully we can ride that wave all the way to the Championship.

Last Saturday, Jurgen Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’ were able to edge out Chelsea for victory in the FA Cup after being taken all the way to a penalty shootout.

I would prefer to avoid such a method of settling the playoff final, but if we can bring our own rock-solid mindset to the hallowed Wembley turf this weekend, we have a glorious opportunity to bring our four years in League One to a close in what would be the sweetest way possible.

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