Premier League quality, dizzy defending and a submissive referee: How Sheffield Wednesday's play-off dreams were dashed against Sunderland

So that’s that. Another season over at Sheffield Wednesday and confirmation the next one will be spent in League One.

Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 5:26 pm
A dejected Sheffield Wednesday fan looks on at Hillsborough after play-off defeat to Sunderland.
A dejected Sheffield Wednesday fan looks on at Hillsborough after play-off defeat to Sunderland.

The reality bites hard on a club and fanbase that seemed to be hitting its straps just at the right time heading into the post-season battle.

But it wasn’t to be as Patrick Roberts scored in injury time to kill hopes of promotion and send Darren Moore’s men into their summer break a fortnight early.

Few would argue that Sunderland were the better side over two legs and deserved to go through; but why did things go as they did and what could Wednesday have done differently?

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A post-mortem into the season itself will be spread across the coming days and weeks no doubt, but for the here and now, here is how it all went wrong on Monday evening at Hillsborough and why Sunderland were able to secure their place at Wembley.

Groundhog day defending

A late goal. A goal from out wide. A lapse in concentration. It was all too familiar a story.

They’re issues Wednesday have tried and failed to combat all campaign. And as Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and Jordan Storey failed to deal with the threat of a simple ball over the top late on on Monday evening, they came home to roost once again.

It stung even more given the nature of Sunderland’s goal at the Stadium of Light of course, when a sloppy piece of Sam Hutchinson control allowing the Black Cats to take control of the tie.

The personnel will likely be very different next time out – Dominic Iorfa is the only senior defender contracted to the club heading into next season – but such powderpuff defending is an issue Darren Moore needs to find a way to eradicate and fast.

Mental fades and an inability to step up and take responsibility in big moments is one of the main reasons the Owls remain a League One club.

Wide men say..

It wasn’t a wide-open playoff-off tie crammed full of clear chances, but over the two legs, Sunderland’s wide pairing of Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts caused Wednesday problems and offered the Mackems a constant outlet in possession.

Much has been made of the quality of Wednesday’s Championship-quality squad this season but those two are Premier League loanees and it showed.

To set up in the way Sunderland did in the second leg they needed those outlets and enough quality out wide to keep Wednesday honest in a way the Owls failed to achieve at the Stadium of Light.

Roberts, who scored for Derby County last season to put Wednesday in the third tier in the first place, got the goal to keep them there. Clarke got the assist.

Among other factors, it was their combined quality that won it.

Substitutions

Few could decry Moore’s thinking over his subs on the night.

For all the running and undoubted quality of Jack Hunt, with Wednesday a goal down the introduction of goal threat Nathaniel Mendez-Laing made sense.

Liam Palmer replaced a groggy Sam Hutchinson in a switch that was enforced, while Callum Paterson strode on in place of a tiring Josh Windass as Wednesday began to go more direct.

There is an argument to suggest he didn’t pull the trigger early enough in order to impact the game, but he was let down by those coming on.

Mendez-Laing was either lazy or absent-minded in his defending for Sunderland’s equaliser, Palmer settled in well but was positionally hit-and-miss and Paterson failed to bring the sort of impact he’d have dreamt of.

On a night such as that, you want your fresh legs to come on and make a change for the positive. In all honesty, they didn’t do that.

The man in black

Rules are there to be enforced. And while you can get wrapped up in watering down Sunderland’s Monday evening antics by describing them as ‘dark arts’ or ‘gamesmanship’, there was a clear tactic to slow the game down and to time waste. It’s effective, but it’s against the rules.

It needed a strong referee to stamp his authority on the occasion early doors and with the world watching, James Linington melted.

His was a submissive refereeing performance that allowed the visitors to take momentum out of the game and, for moments, the sting out of the Hillsborough atmosphere.

No whinging here; Sunderland were the better side over two legs and fully deserved to go through, but their cause was helped by pathetic second leg officiating.

And that’s without mentioning Josh Windass’ first half penalty shout.

How they set up

It’s easy after the fact and after some thought Moore told reporters after the game there is little he would have done differently.

Few Wednesday supporters were too despondent after the first leg delivered just a one-goal deficit. But with Captain Hindsight’s glasses on, it could be argued that the Owls were set up too conservatively and chased shadows for the majority of the match.

They were forced deeper than how they intended it and failed to lay a glove up top.

How much of a physical impact did that have on a second leg in which they seemed to run out of puff a touch? What would have happened had Moore and Wednesday gone a little more hell-for-leather on Wearside?

Those are moot questions, really. We’ll never know. But did Alex Neil win in the battle of the dugouts? You’d have to say he probably shaded it.