WHEN Sunderland played at Wembley in the final of the Checkatrade Trophy, it felt, to a large degree, as though the pressure was off. Yes, there was disappointment when Lee Cattermole failed to convert his penalty. But the sun shone, Trafalgar Square was taken over and it was a good day out. At that stage, the defining games of the season were still to come.

Fast forward almost two months, and the mood will be completely different when Sunderland return to the national stadium on Sunday. If the Checkatrade decider was a welcome bonus, the League One play-off final is the culmination of nine months’ work. Win at the weekend, and the Black Cats can start planning for life in the Championship. Lose, and when the new season begins in August, they will be back to square one.

“It will be special, but we’re not going there just to enjoy it, we’re going there to win it,” said Luke O’Nien, whose performances at right-back have been a key feature of the second half of Sunderland’s season. “Hopefully, we can go one better this time.”

Sunderland’s players intend to call on the experience of March’s Checkatrade defeat when they line up against Charlton Athletic on Sunday, although not as a source of motivation to drive them on. The incentives to succeed at the weekend would still have been every bit as massive had the Black Cats triumphed against Portsmouth in March.

Instead, Jack Ross’ squad are determined to use their recent Wembley trip as a learning curve, a reconnaissance mission that should ensure there are no surprises when they make a return trip down Wembley Way.

Two months ago, there was a novelty factor to playing at Wembley. The suits, the pre-match walkabout, the arch. That is all done now, so when Sunderland’s players leave their hotel on Sunday afternoon, they will be able to devote their undivided attention to the matter in hand.

“I think we can take a lot of experience from being at Wembley,” said O’Nien. “It’s something that we’ve got on our side. If you haven’t been there before, you try to enjoy it, but you learn a lot from the emotion of the whole occasion, let alone playing there.

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“I think having been there already this season is going to be an advantage to us, although it’s a cup final and anything can happen.

“We know what the day is going to entail. I had a little few nerves when I first went to Wembley because it’s somewhere where I always wanted to play, so hopefully I can use that.

“Nerves are a good thing – they show you’re ready for it and excited. But they won’t come as a surprise to me now. Hopefully, I can use that in the right way and hopefully we can do a good job there.”

Sunderland’s professional approach was too much for Portsmouth in the semi-finals, with Kenny Jackett’s side failing to land a serious blow on their opponents in either game.

Whereas a number of this season’s play-off matches have been open, chaotic affairs, Sunderland’s semi-final was a more stereotypical last-four game, with chances at a premium and neither side affording their opponent too much room.

Jack Ross’ tactics proved extremely successful, with the decision to pair Grant Leadbitter with Lee Cattermole in the second leg at Fratton Park turning out to be something of a masterstroke, but Sunderland’s players also deserve credit for the way in which they tackled what could have been an extremely testing challenge.

Defensively, the Black Cats were excellent in both matches, and while keeping the ball out has not always been one of their biggest strengths this season, they have discovered some welcome resolve at the ideal time.

Alim Ozturk’s return to the starting line-up has added some physicality and muscle to the backline, while O’Nien’s energy and commitment at right-back have also been key features in Sunderland’s defensive improvement.

The 24-year-old was regarded as a central midfielder when he signed from Wycome Wanderers last summer, and his early appearances for the Black Cats came in that role. Injuries to Donald Love and Adam Matthews saw him shuffled to the right-back berth, and his performances as part of the back four have been a revelation.

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“The people around me have been a massive help in terms of me settling in at right-back,” he said. “I’ve got good wingers in front of me and good people beside me so when you’ve got that ability and experience around you, it makes your job a lot easier.

“I didn’t really think Portsmouth troubled us too much, so as a defence, we must have done an okay job. Our job now is to repeat that, and make sure we defend as well again for one more game.”