SUNDERLAND hope to have Aiden McGeady available for next weekend’s play-off final at Wembley despite the winger having failed to feature in either of the semi-final matches.

Having been forced to pull out of the first-leg victory over Portsmouth after feeling pain in his foot during the warm-up at the Stadium of Light, McGeady did not even travel to Fratton Park for last night’s decisive second fixture.

The Irishman has been struggling with a foot injury for most of the second half of the season, and while he has been able to play through the pain barrier in some matches thanks to a series of painkilling injections, his training regime has been severely curtailed.

He did not train at all this week, but Jack Ross hopes he will be able to do some light work at the start of next week, enabling him to put himself in contention for next Sunday’s play-off decider.

“Aiden’s season is not over,” said Ross. “He’ll have a chance for the final. The fact that the first leg was last Saturday means the final is just over two weeks from that game. That gives him that extended break again, and hopefully he’ll be able to recover.

“That was another little incentive to get through the semi-final, knowing that we could potentially have a player of Aiden’s quality back available for the final. We’ll give him a good break, and assess it in the week leading up to the final.”

When Ross was appointed as Sunderland manager, he immediately set the target of winning promotion in his first season on Wearside.

Failing to finish in the top two was a disappointment, but Ross bridles at the suggestion that even winning the play-off final would be something of an underachievement for a club of Sunderland’s stature.

The fact that fewer than 30,000 supporters attended the home leg of the semi-final has been interpreted in some quarters as proof that some Sunderland fans feel the campaign has been a failure, but Ross has used that perception to drive his players on as they look to force their way back to the Championship.

“I’ve been proud of the players all season,” he said. “I don’t care what anyone says, the outside perception of what we should do as a club this season is nonsense. We’ve had a lot of things to deal with, and they’ve stood up to it on the vast majority of times this season and shown a lot of character.

“Even over these last two weeks, they’ve shown a lot of character because, in some quarters, I feel there was almost an apologetic feel about us being involved in the play-offs. I didn’t like it, I didn’t agree with it, but we kept that in house and used it as another driving force for us to come through the last two ties.

“I’m proud that they’ve handled that, and proud that they’ve approached the last two games with the mindset that they’ve had. It’s not easy going to the second leg of a play-off at a stadium like Fratton Park, with that atmosphere, but they’ve done it.”

Attention now switches to the final, with Ross having to decide whether to stick with the tactical tweaks that proved so effective last night.

The decision to pair Lee Cattermole and Grant Leadbitter at the base of midfield was a masterstroke, ensuring Sunderland had a rock-solid base in front of their back four, but will there be a need to be more expansive in a Wembley final, when the Black Cats do not have a one-goal lead to defend?

And while Max Power looked comfortable against Portsmouth as he replaced George Honeyman in the ‘number ten’ role, with the skipper moving out to the right-hand side, would he be as effective at Wembley if Sunderland needed to be creative rather than cautious?

“We chose to start that way (at Portsmouth), although we and rotated it at times to get Chris into that area once we had seen out the opening period of the game,” said Ross. “That allowed us to use Max off the side at times, which is something he did at Wigan.

“We decided quite early that was the way we were going to approach the game. Sometimes as a manager, you get praise for it if it works and criticism if it doesn’t, that’s the fine line you walk all the time. We just felt it was going to give us a good platform to win the tie.”