JACK ROSS praised his Sunderland players’ efforts as they booked a place in the League One play-off final last night – then challenged them to end the season on a high by winning promotion at Wembley.

Sunderland’s goalless draw at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park enabled them to claim a 1-0 aggregate win in the semi-final, with Chris Maguire’s weekend goal at the Stadium of Light ultimately proving decisive.

Jon McLaughlin made three excellent saves to keep the scores level on the night, but while Portsmouth huffed and puffed as they attempted to claw back their first-leg deficit, they were successfully contained by a disciplined and committed Sunderland side.

There were celebrations at the final whistle, but unlike at some of the other play-off semi-finals that have been held this week, Sunderland’s players avoided too much triumphalism. As Ross was quick to point out, winning a semi-final means nothing if you go on to lose at Wembley.

“There’s different opinions about how you should feel after winning a semi-final,” said the Sunderland boss. “I think you could see from our reactions that we’re pleased, we’re satisfied, because it’s a difficult place to come and get a result. But we know we’ve still got one big game ahead of us.

“We’ll enjoy it – it’s a happy dressing room in there and the players are happy with what they’ve done – but we’ll also recognise that there’s a week of preparation to come and a huge game to follow that as well.”

The final on Sunday, May 26 gives Sunderland an early opportunity to banish the memory of March’s Checkatrade Trophy final defeat at Wembley, and more importantly, offers Ross and his players the opportunity to make it back to the Championship.

The Black Cats will discover the identity of their opponents this evening, with Charlton Athletic defending a 2-1 first-leg lead over Doncaster Rovers at the Valley. The Addicks will start as strong favourites tonight, with the odds suggesting there is a good chance of a repeat of the unforgettable play-off final from 1998, which saw Charlton beat Sunderland on penalties after a 4-4 draw.

A generation of Sunderland fans would bitterly love to extract revenge for that day, but Ross’ sights are simply set on winning promotion, his stated ambition when he agreed to join Sunderland from St Mirren last summer.

“I’ve always been clear about what my ambitions were,” he said. “I didn’t come to England to manage in League One for more than one season, I want to be in the Championship and I want to take the club there.

“When we missed out on automatic, we knew we had another opportunity to do it. People keep telling me it’s the best way to do it – I don’t know if I necessarily agree with them, I’d like to be on holiday right now with promotion secured.

“But I understand what they mean by it because of the excitement and the tension that was around these games. We’re back at Wembley, in front of a big crowd, and we’ll look forward to it when it comes around.”

Last night’s success was built around a resolute defensive display, with Sunderland’s entire back four impressing as they restricted Portsmouth to a handful of chances.

Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter formed a hugely effective partnership at the heart of midfield, and Pompey had run out of ideas long before the final quarter of the game.

“When you come into these ties, you have to find a way of winning the game over two legs,” said Ross. “We knew coming here in the second leg would be tough. It’s a difficult environment, the fans create an incredible atmosphere, and you have to deal with that.

“We had a game plan, and a way we wanted to play, and I think we did it pretty well. Ultimately, it’s about coming out on top over the two games and we did that.”

There was an unsavoury incident midway through the second half, with a Portsmouth supporter appearing to aim a kick and a punch at Luke O’Nien after the Sunderland full-back crashed over the advertising hoardings as he made a tackle.

“I asked the fourth official, and he said a supporter had swung an arm at him, which isn’t great,” said Ross. “But I wouldn’t want to make too big a deal of it because I’ve enjoyed the two occasions I’ve come here this season, I think it’s a proper football ground. One idiot shouldn’t tarnish that fanbase.”