Sunderland v Sheffield Wednesday: Battered, bruised, but in punching distance - Owls a goal down heading back to Hillsborough

Sheffield Wednesday left their play-off semi-final first leg at Sunderland’s Stadium of Light having been the second-best of the two sides for the vast majority of the match – but on a scoreline they won’t be too aggrieved with heading back to Hillsborough.

Friday, 6th May 2022, 9:42 pm
Updated Friday, 6th May 2022, 9:45 pm

In a red hot atmosphere, the first 45 minutes played out largely how Wednesday would have liked; having come through Sunderland’s initial adrenaline-fused burst of pressure, they were second-best but seemed relatively at ease, slowing the game down, building a counter-attack or two of their own.

The problem was the couple of minutes added time latched onto the end of them. Sam Hutchinson, the Owls’ player of the half up until the vital moment, stumbled while attempting to pass the ball back to Bailey Peacock-Farrell under pressure.

The Northern Ireland stopper seemed to have done enough with a solid connection with his outstretched leg. Alas. Ross Stewart the very capable – and very grateful – goalscorer.

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Sheffield Wednesday's Barry Bannan tumbles out of a duel with Sunderland's Lyndon Gooch.

To that point the Stadium of Light had been an increasingly nervous place. Visitors to Hillsborough know the drill all too well and when that sense of anxiety builds, matches such as these become more and more fractious for the home side. That the hosts’ goal came seconds before the break was tough to take.

But we’ve seen mettle from this Owls squad not seen in and as they stepped out for the second period, a brave switch in formation – the first time for some time they’d been in anything other than the 3-5-2 for any meaningful stretch.

It didn’t work. It looked confused, Wednesday looked stretched and make no mistake, for the 15 minutes that the Owls set up in that shape Sunderland battered them. On the hour and with Josh Windass having replaced the ineffective Saido Berahino, they swallowed their pride and reverted back.

As the second half grew on, wave on wave of Sunderland attack was thrown at the visitors. Wednesday couldn’t get their foot on the ball and the famed midfield three were swamped, the strikers were isolated, the defenders firefighting.

But somehow it remained 1-0 with a second leg at a sold-out Hillsborough growing closer and closer. And the feeling grew that for all their struggles, for all the scratching and clawing with every Sunderland attack, they were very much in the tie.

With 15 minutes to go that the feeling leaked onto the terraces and that sense of quiet anxiety just started to make itself felt. Liam Palmer came close twice in quick succession to exacerbate the fact. What if?

Though they were perhaps the better of the two sides in the last, a smash-and-grab twist wasn’t to be.

For all the Sunderland dominance, for all their chances and for all the hairy moments, the Owls will line up at S6 only a goal in the red.

It’s advantage Sunderland. But a little battered, a bruise here and there, Wednesday go into the second leg in punching distance of Wembley. Buckle up.

Sunderland: Patterson; Wright, Batth, O'Nien; Gooch, Evans, Cirkin, Roberts (Embleton, 80’); Pritchard (Matete, 80’); Clarke (Doyle, 90+2’), Stewart

Subs: Hoffmann, Neil, McGeady, Hume

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

Subs: Wildsmith, Hunt, Dunkley, Mendez-Laing, Paterson