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Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg

Matchday Musings: Oh, Sunderland… gorgeous, beautiful Sunderland

Whatever happens on Tuesday, what a season it has been for Sunderland.

Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

That word “expectation” has often proved to be a monumental stumbling block for Sunderland teams past. Pressure… buckle. Pressure… bottle. This season there was no expectation. Stay up, consolidate.

Today there was no expectation. As Keith Andrews said in his post-match analysis after our Preston win last week, we are in bonus territory. Limited expectation is a freeing luxury we’ve not experienced in years, and today it was demonstrated on the pitch, this Sunderland side were a side liberated.

Free from burden, and free to play without fear. While we’ve done so all season, today just felt different. There was no murmurs, no groans, and no rumblings of discontent when Luton went 1-up inside 10 minutes.

The roar, and chant of “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” rang around the Stadium of Light as the players trudged back to the half-line, for both they, and us knew they’d come again.

Going into the game with Gooch and Cirkin in doubt, and a well-publicised injury list that meant we had no recognised centre-backs, the tall order (physically and figuratively) of playing and getting a result against a Luton side unbeaten in 14, seemed insurmountable.

The team announcement almost (but not quite) confirmed our worst fears. Cirkin out. Gooch battles on. Top heavy, but we knew that already. Over to you lads.

The only expectation was one within our control. Bring the noise, bring the atmosphere, Sunderland fans don’t need to be asked twice. The stage was set, the brilliant ‘Til the End banner was unfurled, and the 46,000 backing were absolutely bouncing.

We made a relatively decent start, the players clearly fed off the energy from the crowd, as we failed to make a few early counter-attacks count.

10 minutes in - Corner Luton. The first test for our aerially-challenged side. 1-0 Luton. Predictable.

After Luton’s early blow, we slowly, but surely found our way back into the game. Patience is a virtue, and thankfully we have bags of it. 41st minute. Free-Kick to Sunderland to the right of the Luton penalty area. Pritchard tees up Amad. Twat. Top bins. Delirium. Our soon-to-be departing Ivorian Prince strikes again with another sumptuous effort… the ultimate parting gift.

Game on.

Sunderland started the second as they finished the first, with wind in their sails.

Clarke’s inviting ball delicately picking out Trai Hume, who exquisitely heads home. Dennis Cirkin vs West Brom-esque. 2-1 to the red and white wizards, the roof is lifted off the SOL.

For the remainder of the game, we were utterly dominant in possession. Pass, move, pass, move, with an occasional Ekwah interception, Roberts dribble, and Gooch and O’Nien reducer thrown in for good measure. When the Full-Time whistle went, a roar of relief, hope, and pride reverberated

Special mentions have to go to Pierre Ekwah who was simply outstanding. It was the Frenchman’s first full 90 minutes in professional football, and he turned in a performance as emphatic, and as imperious as that. “Rolls Royce of a player” is an idiom bandied around too liberally these days, but Ekwah was exactly that this afternoon. I’m sure he’ll be looking forward to forming a midfield three with Dan Neil and one of Edouard Michut and Jobe Bellingham next season…

Another valiant, hearts-on-sleeve display from this young side who keep fighting despite the most trying of circumstances. I expect Luton to come out all-guns-blazing at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday, and this tie is by no means done, however, one thing we can take from today, regardless of Tuesday’s result is immense pride from our performances this season, doing it on the biggest stage of them all today.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, what a season it’s been.

On This Day (9 June 2007): Midfielder turns down Sunderland return – and heads to Bolton instead


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