Patrick Roberts scored on the final day of last season to help send Sheffield Wednesday down to League One, and the winger condemned the Owls to another season in the third tier with an stoppage-time winner to put Sunderland 90 minutes away from promotion.
The match was heading into extra-time after Lee Gregory slid the ball home to cancel out Ross Stewart’s first-leg winner but Roberts pounced in the 10 minutes of time added on to earn victory for Sunderland thanks to fine work by Jack Clarke on the left, who tricked his way inside the box before fizzing the ball into the path of Roberts. The duo once cost a combined £21m, which proved handy to Alex Neil.
Sunderland have failed to earn promotion in their previous six attempts in the playoffs but they are currently 15 games unbeaten and Trafalgar Square will be packed before their trip to Wembley to face Wycombe. “I just think as a coach, the one thing that you want is for your team to represent you,” Neil said. “I would regard myself as being determined, being focused, knowing what I want and doing what I can to get it. And I think this team completely represents me in how they want them to go about it, which unfortunately, I never had as a player.”
A packed Hillsborough roared every touch from a Wednesday player in the early stages. The biggest cheer of the opening five minutes was saved for Sunderland’s Alex Pritchard when he leapt over an outstretched leg on the edge of the box, only for the referee and home supporters to show the midfielder what they thought of his artistic attempt to win a free-kick.
Barry Bannan’s intelligence on the ball ensured the surround sound did not stop. Whenever the midfielder collected a pass, the volume was raised in expectation that he would find his passing range. Bannan raised the noise levels once more just before the half-hour mark when he slid in to catch Pritchard on the top of his boot with his studs, forcing referee, James Linington, to take out his yellow card, much to the disgust of Hillsborough.
It took 35 minutes for a shot on target, and it came in an unlikely form. A Wednesday corner was sent back into the box where George Byers choreographed a perfect overhead kick, only to send the ball straight into Anthony Patterson’s waiting arms.
Sunderland were better at disrupting Wednesday in the second half, upsetting the home team and fans alike. There was a demand for urgency to avoid the game slowing down but poorly-timed challenges and misplaced passes allowed the visitors to keep the game at more sedate to increase frustration inside Hillsborough.
Clarke showed his dribbling ability on the hour mark; he ran across the box searching for an opening to fire at goal and when he could not find one, he laid the ball off to Roberts whose curling shot was easily held by Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
It took a moment of Championship quality in a game firmly mired in the third tier to finally take the roof off Hillsborough. Bannan’s defence-splitting pass to help set up Gregory’s finish was needed in a match more focused on tackling and time-wasting than skill and ability.
After 74 minutes of irritation, Hillsborough could scratch the itch. Bannan slipped a pass inside Lyndon Gooch for Marvin Johnson to run on to and cut back straight into Gregory’s path, gifting him the chance to tap home from a few yards out thanks to his slick movement. All the blue and white frustration was released, replaced with ecstasy and bouncing stands.
Since helping Derby survive at Wednesday’s expense last season, Roberts has endured an unsuccessful spell in France with Troyes. The winger is still trying to fulfil the potential that made Manchester City pay £11m for him as a teenager and silencing Hillsborough could be the first step on the road to redemption. The next one could be made at Wembley.
“We’re disappointed for the players but that’s football,” Wednesday manager Darren Moore said. “I’ve said you’ve got to take it on the chin, it has its beautiful parts, and sometimes it can kick you right where it hurts. We’ll have to regroup.”