WHEN Sunderland played Portsmouth last time out, Trafalgar Square was painted red and white ahead of the Wembley Checkatrade Trophy final.

As they took on the same opposition on home turf on Saturday, not even Keel Square was a sea of passion.

Apathy not excitement reigned beforehand as Pompey visited for the first-leg of the League One play-off semi-final.

Just 22,000 tickets were sold by Thursday. It was up to 26,610 by kick-off (1,288 visiting fans included).

Cup knockout games aside, it was still their lowest home gate of the season. For the game which no-one wanted, the full house signs weren’t needed on Wearside.

This season, on occasions like Boxing Day when over 46,000 saw the Black Cats beat Bradford City, the Premier Concourse was opened. There was never any danger of those swathes of seats being used this time.

But, as is standard at the Stadium of Light, the tension, atmosphere, edge and noise builds in the minutes to kick-off. Maybe even anticipation likewise.

Flags were flying high up in the sky before the game, then the Roker End went through their full back catalogue of songs.

By the end, as the Black Cats dug their claws in to keep their one-goal lead intact, those behind the goal were, as they said many times, singing their hearts out for the lads.

“The crowd, I’m never going to be critical of the fanbase here because they have been terrific and the noise they made was terrific,’’ mused manager Jack Ross. “We have put a lot of work in to get success this season and we are still hanging in there to try and get it.

“It’s been a long road to get there and we are delighted with the noise from the fans and we gave them a reward.’’

There is something special about play-off games. Even those teams who fall into the end of season shake-up out of form rediscover their game once the regular season has finished. It took Sunderland over 45 minutes to find something like theirs.

The opening 30 minutes was about Pompey. They passed the ball better, looking more adept in possession. Sunderland were on the same level they were at Southend the previous week.

They lifted up when, as their crossing radar finally switched on, a couple of balls were whipped with intent into the area. When one was half-cleared, Lee Cattermole thundered into a tackle to get the ball with authority and peg Pompey back.

It was peak Cattermole. The old-school midfielder you will never see with his shirt outside his high waistband shorts relished the challenge.

His next involvement wasn’t as good, spraying a crossfield ball out of play. That summed up Sunderland’s opening half, even the opening 45 minutes in its entirety.

However, in the second-half, down to ten men with a lead to protect, who else would you want in the middle of the park. Who else would bite, tackle and snap at the opposition? He never did have the legs to rattle around the pitch, but in close combat he’s your bulldog.

The crowd raised their game, red and white players equally so. Craig MacGillivary’s save from a close-range George Honeyman header brought everyone to their feet.

The roof was lifted minutes later as Chris Maguire rifled home.

Ross added: “I felt the crowd were terrific second-half and came to life second half. The whole game was like that.

“We started to play better, came to life in the second-half the crowd responded and played a huge part in helping us see out the game. The game management was good, but we know the atmosphere helps us.’’

Now the game suddenly mattered to all; in the ground, at home, or in their local.

The Netflix cameras hovering around owner Stewart Donald and his sidekick Charlie Methven will have caught plenty of expletives when big Alim Ozturk was harshly sent-off.

It seemed Maguire’s influence was going to be subdued. He scored minutes after being introduced as a substitute, but that was from an advanced, almost floating role. Now he was pegged back to the flank in a 4-4-1 set-up.

All hands to the pump, Luke O’Nien shepherded Viv Solomon-Otabor into the track around the pitch. Strong defending. And it was, of course, Cattermole who appreciated it more than anyone with a pat on the back and a handshake for the right-back.

Job half done. But raucous Fratton Park on Thursday will be a different proposition with its old school feel.

As the Sunderland players went on their lap of appreciation after the final whistle, the crowd – those who remained – showed what they thought of their night’s efforts.

They enjoyed it. Probably more of them who stayed at home now wish they had gone along on Saturday night.