Sunderland ended a four year stay in League One this afternoon, as Alex Neil’s side beat Wycombe Wanderers 2-0 under the Wembley arch in the play-off final.
Neil has led the Black Cats on an incredible run of form since taking charge at the Stadium of Light in February and, now, he’s written his name into North East folklore, delivering the club’s first ever play-off success and promotion back into the Championship.
Sunderland supporters had swarmed Trafalgar Square last night and done the same on Wembley Way from lunchtime today. Neil’s side fed off the electric atmosphere they created right across London, starting brightly.
Alex Pritchard’s early free-kick was narrowly wide, whilst Ross Stewart went close to converting a cross from Pritchard. Patrick Roberts, meanwhile, was a menace and impossible to pick up off the right.
The fourth part of Neil’s attacking quartet, Elliot Embleton, was the man to break the deadlock, picking up the ball inside his own half and cutting through Wycombe as if they weren’t there. His shot was straight and wobbled its way past a disappointing David Stockdale.
Neil’s decision to recall Embleton in the place of Jack Clarke, then, fully justified inside the first 12 minutes.
Sunderland built on that start, too, as Stockdale restored a bit of confidence, holding a Pritchard shot and parrying Stewart’s effort. It had been all Sunderland and Anthony Patterson was largely untested as he watched Sam Vokes and Anthony Stewart head harmlessly over at different points.
In the stands, Wycombe were outnumbered by Sunderland’s supporters, which Gareth Ainsworth had underlined in his programme notes was no issue. What he will have had issue with, though, was how his side looked largely outnumbered on the pitch.
Coincidently it was Wycombe who could’ve had the numerical advantage shortly after half-time, as Dennis Cirkin walked a tightrope with Simon Hooper after a pair of challenges with Garath McCleary.
Despite an improved Wycombe showing in those exchanges, it was Sunderland flirting with the possibility of tightening their grip on a place in next season’s Championship – Stewart directing a Pritchard cross the wrong side of Stockdale’s post.
Bailey Wright had Sunderland hearts in mouths on the hour, misjudging Stewart’s long ball and allowing Vokes in-behind. Patterson, though, bailed his teammate out, quickly reacting and smothering danger.
Sunderland’s supporters lifted the noise inside Wembley on the back of that, as Neil flexed the wealth of attacking talent he has. Clarke on for Embleton to torment Wycombe’s right.
At this point, Ainsworth had to roll the dice, throwing on Brandon Hanlan and Adebayo Akinfenwa to support Vokes.
Hanlan snatched at a chance to draw Wycombe level and, then, the game had gone and Sunderland were on the cusp of the Championship return their fans have been desperate for. Stewart, fed by Pritchard, stroking an early shot beyond Stockdale.
As Wycombe piled bodies forwards searching for a lifeline, Sunderland looked for added gloss through Stewart, Roberts and Clarke.
That third goal wasn’t forthcoming. Not that the 40,000+ Sunderland supporters cared, mind.
After six heartbreaking play-off campaigns, this moment was long overdue and one that they were revelling in.
It’s not quite the top table of English football that Sunderland will be dining at next season, yet it’s a step in the right direction under a coach with experience of overcoming that particular hurdle.
That’s a conversation for another day, though, as Sunderland wave goodbye to League One after four long seasons.
FT: Sunderland 2-0 Wycombe Wanderers.