IN 2019, when Sunderland made the League One play-off final under Jack Ross, they won a tight semi-final home leg 1-0 before digging in to grind out the goalless draw at Portsmouth that took them to Wembley. Three years on, and under the control of another Scottish boss, the Black Cats will be hoping that lightning strikes twice.

Ross Stewart’s 45th-minute strike settled an intriguing opening leg at the Stadium of Light, but while Sunderland will feel a one-goal advantage was the very least they deserved given their dominance for the opening hour on Wearside, Sheffield Wednesday’s spirited finish in the final half-hour underlined the difficulty of the task still facing them at Hillsborough on Monday. Just as they were at Fratton Park three years ago, they will have to be tough, resolute and supremely well-organised to see this one through.

They were certainly the better side last night, although while Alex Pritchard could hardly have come closer as he struck the crossbar at the start of the second half, the fact they were unable to add to Stewart’s opener, which came in first-half stoppage time, will be a source of some regret.

Having shaded a cagey opening period, the Black Cats threatened to cut loose for 20 minutes or so at the start of the second half, only for the Sheffield Wednesday defence to stand firm. When Stewart had a final chance to extend the Wearsiders’ lead with one minute left, he dragged his shot wide of the target.

As a result, both sides will head to Hillsborough for the return leg feeling they have every chance of making it to Wembley. The Owls will have to be much more expansive than they were last night, but buoyed by the support of a partisan crowd, they almost certainly will be. Sunderland, whose home attendance yesterday evening was 44,742, the largest for any game outside the Premier League this season, will know they will have to stand firm and take whatever opportunities come their way.

It would help if they had Nathan Broadhead available for the second leg, although that looks an unlikely scenario given his absence from the squad last night. Broadhead’s unavailability because of the injury he sustained in the final-day win at Morecambe gave Alex Neil a selection headache, which he attempted to solve by including Pritchard, Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts in the same starting side for only the second time during his tenure.

The creative trio played in a line behind lone striker Stewart, with Dennis Cirkin’s return also facilitating the switch to a flat back four, with Lynden Gooch lining up at right-back. In both an attacking and a defensive sense, the Sunderland boss could be content that his changes worked.

The first leg of play-off semi-finals tend to go one of two ways. They are either rip-roaring affairs from the outset, with both teams throwing caution to the wind and adopting a tactic of all-out attack, or they are cagey, cautious encounters, with neither side wanting to take too much of a risk until the opposition blinks. For the opening 45 minutes at least, last night’s game fell into the latter camp.

Chances were at a premium throughout the first half, with Sunderland’s midfielders dominating the ball in unthreatening areas while Sheffield Wednesday’s defenders were prepared to cede possession provided their opponents did not make it into the final third.

The result was something of an impasse, with the Black Cats rotating the ball neatly in and around the centre-circle, but never really threatening to feed Stewart or get other players into the Owls’ 18-yard box.

Roberts drilled a fourth-minute effort straight at Wednesday goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell after cutting in from the right, where he was stationed in front of Gooch, but it was to be more than half-an-hour before the hosts fashioned their next opportunity, and even that proved an anti-climax, with Corry Evans slicing a shot wide from 22 yards after Stewart rolled the ball into his path.

Sheffield Wednesday were boosted by the return of their talisman, Barry Bannan, from injury, but the diminutive midfielder barely touched the ball for much of the evening, such was Sheffield Wednesday’s willingness to drop deep and soak up pressure.

The Owls’ only opportunity of the first half came midway through the opening period, and came to nothing when Lee Gregory directed a back-post header straight at Anthony Patterson after Liam Palmer swung over a cross from the right.

The game needed something to spark it into life, and it arrived in first-half stoppage time as Sunderland claimed an opener somewhat out of the blue.

Having successfully dealt with everything Sunderland had thrown at him in the previous 45 minutes, Sam Hutchinson suddenly erred with calamitous effects when a routine long ball was floated over his head on the brink of half-time. Uncertain whether to move forward or drop back, Hutchinson hesitated and was rooted to the spot as Stewart galloped clear.

The striker’s first shot was saved by the legs of Peacock-Farrell, but when the ball rebounded towards the byline, Stewart slid home the rebound from an extremely acute angle. It was the Scotsman’s 25th goal of the season, and unquestionably the most significant.

It was also the spark for a more open second half, with Sunderland becoming increasingly dominant and Sheffield Wednesday’s defending becoming much more ragged than had been the case before the break.

Pritchard, in particular, saw much more of the ball after the interval, and the midfielder twice went close to doubling the Black Cats’ lead in the opening ten minutes of the second half.

His first effort could hardly have come much closer to finding the net. Receiving the ball from Clarke on the corner of the area, Pritchard opened up his body before curling in an excellent effort that arced past Peacock-Farrell but rebounded off the crossbar.

Three minutes later, and after picking up the ball from Roberts after the winger danced his way into the right-hand side of the box, Pritchard found the target, only for his goal-bound effort to be fingertipped over the bar by Peacock-Farrell.

With another Roberts dribble ending in a shot that was deflected over the top after the wide-man skipped past his former Middlesbrough team-mate, Marvin Johnson, Sunderland enjoyed a purple patch either side of the hour mark.

It was beginning to fizzle out by the time Sheffield Wednesday fashioned a rare opportunity, with Harlee Dean heading straight at Patterson after breaking onto a deep free-kick at the back post, although Roberts served notice of the Wearsiders’ continued attacking intent as he curled another low effort just past the far post with 20 minutes left.

Palmer headed Massimo Luongo’s floated cross wide of the target as the Owls enjoyed their best spell of possession in the closing stages, and with his side being pinned back for the first time all evening, Neil brought on Jay Matete and Elliot Embleton for the final ten minutes in an attempt to reestablish some midfield control.

The alterations proved effective, with the final chance going Sunderland’s way. Peacock-Farrell raced from his area to deal with a long ball over the top with a misguided header, but while Stewart gathered in possession and got a shot away, he dragged his low effort wide of the post.