Sunderland 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday: Alex Neil's side take slender lead

Sunderland 1-0 Sheffield Wednesday: Alex Neil’s Black Cats take slender advantage to Hillsborough after tense first leg as they bid to reach League One play-off final

  • Sunderland emerged victorious in their play-off semi-final first-leg tie on Friday 
  • Ross Stewart’s goal proved the difference as they beat Sheffield Wednesday 
  • The hosts won in front of a loud record crowd of 44,742 at the Stadium of Light 

There is something about the acoustics here, especially on nights as boisterous as this when the decibels are as high as the stakes, that the Stadium of Noise would be a more fitting title for Sunderland’s partisan home.

It helps when you have a crowd of 44,742, the highest for a play-off semi-final in the history of the Football League; take that in when you consider the lunacy of the Black Cats even being here in the first place.

It helps, too, when your team comes into the game 13 unbeaten under a new manager. Make that 14 after Ross Stewart’s only goal gave them a slender yet precious first-leg advantage.

Sunderland won their play-off semi-final first-leg tie on Friday thanks to Ross Stewart’s goal

The hosts won in front of a partisan, raucous, record crowd of 44,742 at the Stadium of Light

There is something about the acoustics here, like on nights like this when the decibels are as high as the stakes, the Stadium of Noise would be a more fitting title for Sunderland’s home

Sunderland (3-4-1-2): Patterson; Wright, Batth, Cirkin; Gooch, Evans, O’Nien, Clarke (Doyle 90+3); Roberts (Embleton 81); Pritchard (Matete 80), Stewart.

Substitutes not used: Hoffmann; Hume, D Neil, McGeady.

Goals: Stewart 45+1.

Yellow cards: O’Nien 63.

Manager: Alex Neil.

Sheffield Wednesday (3-5-2): Peacock-Farrell; Storey, Hutchinson, Dean; Palmer, Byers (Dele-Bashiru 88), Bannan, Luongo, Johnson; Berahino (Windass 56), Gregory.

Substitutes not used: Wildsmith; Hunt, Dunkley, Mendez-Laing, Paterson. 

Yellow cards: Luongo 52.

Manager: Darren Moore. 

If Alex Neil’s side maintain their run at Hillsborough on Monday night, Wembley awaits. With it, a chance to bring closure on four years of purgatory – some would argue hell – here in League One.

Neil quite passionately – in fact, make that aggressively – refutes the suggestion that his new club are worthy of more. His point is that Sunderland are where they are for a reason.

He is right, of course, but occasions like this really do have the feel of a Premier League setting, never mind the Championship. Wednesday and their fans will no doubt make an equally compelling case in the return leg.

But Neil said: ‘I have been involved in a lot of big games and that was right up there. These moments in football, in life, in fact, don’t come along that often. How fortunate am I to be stood there on the touchline? The atmosphere was electric and I thought my players were a credit to the club.’

Wednesday were never going to silence a capacity crowd but, for 45 minutes, they had succeeded in subduing those on the pitch.

Owls boss Darren Moore must have felt like screaming, then, when his side conceded in the first minute of stoppage-time, especially given the self-inflicted nature of it.

Striker Stewart had spent much of the first half in the pocket of Sam Hutchinson. But when the defender hesitated in possession 40 yards from goal, Stewart climbed from said pocket and duly picked it by nicking the ball and making his escape in the direction of the visiting goal.

Wednesday boss Darren Moore (second right) will be frustrated about the manner of the goal

Scottish striker Stewart scored after picking the pocket of Owls defender Sam Hutchinson

Hutchinson gave chase but, by the time he recovered the ground, Stewart was squeezing home at the second attempt after his initial poke was blocked by goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

It was his 25th of the season and, on the back of a recent Scotland call-up, his is a career with scope for big improvement yet.

Team-mate Patrick Roberts can only hope the same is true of his remaining playing days. Such was his promise as a teenager, the winger might well have been playing for Manchester City in a Champions League semi-final this week. Indeed, he was still on City’s books as recently as January, when released to join Sunderland on a free.

But third-tier football is the reality for the 25-year-old, whose myriad loan moves have taken a path as winding as the forward runs which persuaded City to pay £12million for him seven years ago.

To that end, the sight of Roberts jinking by a string of blue-and-white jerseys as early as the third minute was a reminder as to his talent. His eventual shot, saved comfortably by Peacock-Farrell, was also a reminder as to why he never made the grade at the Etihad.

Alex Neil’s men will take a one-goal advantage to Hillsborough for the second leg next week

Such efforts are always greeted with great gusto by a home crowd during the infancy of a contest. Call it optimism. But so loud was the roar here, you would have sworn Roberts had found the top corner. Some goals at this level are met with less of a racket.

It set the tone for a raucous night, throughout which each decision was contested, each tackle hailed as a declaration of intent.

The only sour note for Sunderland was their failure to add to Stewart’s goal – Alex Pritchard struck the crossbar in the second half and was then denied by a flying Peacock-Farrell save.

But the noise that met the full-time whistle might have suggested this tie is won. It is not, and Monday promises to be another belter.

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