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

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Talking Points: Sunderland succumb to Luton’s perfect plan, but have plenty to be proud of!

We’re disheartened by last night’s defeat, of course, but so unbelievably proud of this Sunderland team, this season and our unexpected playoff pursuit.

The season has come to a close with a 3-2 aggregate defeat to Luton.
| Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Unchanged from Saturday

As the final whistle went at the Stadium of Light on Saturday we were both buzzing to finish the first leg ahead, and extremely anxious at the prospect of losing Pritchard and/or Roberts to injury for last night.

In ordinary circumstances, we would have considered how much effort the lads gave in the last time out and be concerned that there were no changes in the starting line-up. Such is our current shortage of fit and healthy playing staff currently that the sight of an unchanged XI at 7pm was instead met with sighs of relief.

Whilst Pritchard was replaced by Alese early in the second half, I assume it was more to get Roberts further up the pitch where he could try and be more effective in getting us back into the game.

Preston North End v Sunderland - Sky Bet Championship - Deepdale Stadium
Patrick Roberts allayed any injury concerns and once again took up a position at Right Back.
Photo by Tim Markland/PA Images via Getty Images

Once again the lads gave everything they throughout and if there was any fatigue hangover from Saturday, it certainly wasn’t visible to me.

Perfect game plan by Luton

Sunderland were a fantastic opponent...

We knew we had to be dirty and physical to get ahead of them.

Tom Lockyer

Luton knew what they needed to do against our smaller and less imposing team, and while the space at the Stadium of Light wouldn’t allow them to impose it on us for 90 minutes, coming back to Kenilworth Road they were able to adopt their gameplan perfectly.

They doubled and tripled up on Diallo, rendering him largely ineffective and pressed our back line as high and as hard as I’ve seen an opposing team all season, denying Roberts any opportunity to really venture beyond the halfway line for the first hour.

Their press and high block forced Ekwah to play further back both in and out of possession, dampening all the positive influence on the game he impressed with in the first leg. This in turn left Clarke isolated, which left Lockyer only needing to concentrate on Gelhardt.

I would normally back us to score against any opponent, but Luton played a blinder and for the first time in as long as I can remember we never looked like threatening.

Luton Town v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg
Luton’s game plan to double and triple up on Diallo worked to perfection.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Handling of the intimidating inferno at Kenilworth Road

Hostile would be an understatement in describing the Kenilworth Road crowd. Right from the first minute it was a concerto of intimidation and more experienced and battle-hardened players than Sunderland have at their disposal have wilted and flaked away under that pressure.

The shouting, screaming hoards within six feet of the touchline would have been impossible to ignore (it was bad enough hearing it through the Sky Sports microphone’s let alone being pitchside on the opposing team!).

Whilst the quality of the performance wasn’t quite there on the night, the lads never gave up, nor did they bend or break at the sound of every cheer at a corner won, or deafening boos and abuse whenever a Sunderland player was close enough to hear it.

Luton’s little cauldron played a huge part in getting them to where they are, but I thought the lads handled it very well, particularly in the face of being 2-0 down and dominated for large parts of the game - credit to each of them.

Luton Town v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg
The Luton Town fans created an incredibly hostile atmosphere, but Sunderland stood up to the intimidation off the pitch better than the intimidation on it.
Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Welcome back Niall Huggins

Amongst all the drama, excitement and disappointment, let's spare a moment to recognise the incredible comeback from Niall Huggins and how good it was to see him come through the awful injury troubles he’s had and get back on the pitch.

It might have only been just under 30 minutes across the two games, but to make a comeback after such a long time out, in games of such magnitude is an incredible pressure.

The results may not have been ideal, but Huggins performed well and didn’t look like a man who had played just four senior games in two years.

Sunderland v Luton Town: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final First Leg
Niall Huggins making another step in his recovery from injury was one of very few highlights of the second leg defeat.
Photo by Michael Driver/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Hopefully he will be a big part of next season and his return will be the start of a stream of very important players to come back fit and ready to fight for it all over again next season.

So...What now...?

Quite simply, WE GO AGAIN!

At the start of the season, only in our wildest dreams did we expect to come as far as we have.

Sunderland have over-achieved in their first season back in The Championship, and perhaps more tellingly have gained the plaudits and praise of pundits and commentators alike as the season went on.

Time and time again we had Sky Sports drooling over our football, the goals we scored, and the youthful exuberance and fearlessness of our team - all with the mitigation and recognition that we’ve done all this without Ross Steward for the vast majority of the season.

For now, be disappointed but not devastated. Let the squad have a well earned rest and we’ll wait with excitement, anticipation, and perhaps a degree of expectation for the 23/24 season.

We’ll likely have to do it without Diallo, but with the emergence of players like Ekwah, the rumoured hot prospect signings of the calibre of Jobe Bellingham, along with the returns of Batth, Ballard, Stewart, Jewi and Evans, there is every reason to move on from last night and be really excited about what next season could bring.


Luton Town v Sunderland: Sky Bet Championship Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg
We’ll be back in numbers to drive the team on again next year!
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images


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