After a dramatic play-off semi-final victory over Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland are one game away from a return to the Championship as Alex Neil continues to bring the positivity back to Wearside.
The Black Cats go into the Final in positive form, unbeaten in 15 league games and with only one loss in 17 for Neil, who replaced Lee Johnson as manager in February.
Avoid defeat once again and the north-east club will be back in the second tier after a four year absence – with two of the three prior seasons ending in play-off heartache.
However, securing a Championship return is far easier said than done. Wembley opponents Wycombe Wanderers were themselves without defeat in 15 before the 1-0 second leg loss at MK Dons – although the Chairboys still progressed 2-1 on aggregate.
Nonetheless, Josh from Speak Sunderland hopes his side have already overcome their toughest assignment and takes confidence from the showing against the Owls.
“I think we probably got the hardest fixture in the semi-final and to come away from both legs without defeat was a huge boost.
“We managed the first leg very well, albeit were perhaps unlucky to only come away with a one-goal advantage.
“However, as Alex Neil does, he set the team up perfectly in the second leg and got the job done against a very good side.”
Since his appointment on February 11, the former Norwich and Preston boss has overseen an upturn in form for the Black Cats.
Despite sitting third in the division, a sobering 6-0 defeat away to Bolton Wanderers instigated the end of Lee Johnson’s 14-month reign in somewhat surprising circumstances.
And after a somewhat wobbly start under his successor, Sunderland have since won 9 of their last 14 League One fixtures, and Josh believes the club are in a healthier state with Neil at the helm.
“We are in the best position we have been in comparison to other play-off campaigns and we have a manager who doesn’t know how to lose.
“We have adapted a mentality that means the next game is seen as the biggest of the season and that’s helped push us over the line during the campaign.”
The good news is that Nathan Broadhead, on loan from Everton, is fit to feature at Wembley for longer than the injury-time cameo he had at Hillsborough and Josh describes his return as a “huge boost”.
It was his strike partner, 25-goal man Ross Stewart, who netted a double in both appearances against Wycombe in the league season – a 3-1 home win in August and a 3-3 draw away at Adams Park in the reverse fixture in January.
“The 3-3 away was perhaps a result we were unlucky with.
“From what I recall, Jacobson made a goal-line clearance and scored the equalizing goal, both after he could have been sent off earlier in the game.
“But, the big difference between the Sunderland side then and now is the organisation.”
That’s backed up by the numbers: Sunderland have shipped just 11 goals in 17 league games and kept eight clean sheets since Neil took charge, with only Ipswich letting in fewer in that timeframe.
“We are much more solid defensively and able to deal with balls into the box, which is no doubt what Wycombe will be looking to do from minute one on Saturday.”
The Black Cats have two centre-backs in Danny Batth and Bailey Wright who have won promotion from this level three times between them, and have made a combined 378 Championship appearances.
In the six games that Batth and Wright have started together, Sunderland have shipped only three goals, so Josh is optimistic of continuing his side’s strong record against the Chairboys.
“We are unbeaten against them this season: it’s easier said than done but if we keep it that way, we will be a Championship club next season.
“It’s going to be a tough game. A nervous, edgy game. However, we as a fanbase have never been more optimistic about a side and a manager as we are now.
“If there’s any manager capable of taking us up, it’s Neil. I fancy us to take our opportunity and win 2-1.
“Wycombe to take the lead but two late goals from Sunderland in normal time wins the game.”
The late goals would cause pandemonium for half of Wembley and be no surprise – had their games under Neil finished with 10 minutes to spare, the Wearsiders would have amassed a whopping 12 fewer points and finished 10th.
Sunderland fans are hoping their side has one last late rally left in them as they seek to finally escape their Championship exile.
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