LAST season, Sunderland supporters were forced to watch on from their homes as the Black Cats ended their Wembley hoodoo in front of 90,000 empty seats in the Papa John’s Trophy final. A week on Saturday, those same fans will watch on again as the Wearsiders return to Wembley in the League One play-off final. This time, however, they will be there to share in the experience.

On a remarkable night that saw Patrick Roberts score the decisive goal in the third minute of stoppage time, Sunderland booked their fourth trip to Wembley as a League One club. Alex Neil’s side have made a habit of scoring dramatic late goals in recent weeks – this one, which came after Lee Gregory’s 74th-minute finish had threatened to take the game into extra-time, was by far the most important.

Sunderland will take on Wycombe on May 21, and having come through an exceptionally tight two-legged semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, they will justifiably feel that, this time, they can go all the way. Forget the memory of 2019’s defeat to Charlton Athletic – this is a side that simply does not know when it is beaten.

In each of Sunderland’s two previous outings in the League One play-offs, the team that had won the first leg of the semi-final went on to make it to Wembley. Last night’s game completed the hat-trick, although hearts were in mouths when Gregory converted Marvin Johnson’s cross with 16 minutes left.

The Black Cats’ defending had been exemplary to that point, but crucially, while they dug in when needed, they also carried an attacking threat which ultimately proved crucial.

Three of the ten allotted minutes of injury time had lapsed when Jack Clarke galloped away down the left, and after he slid the ball across the six-yard box, Roberts swooped to turn home. The winger has flattered to deceive somewhat since joining from Manchester City in January – after last night, his place in Wearside footballing folklore is assured.

Roberts spun away in jubilation; the travelling Sunderland fans housed in the stand behind the goal exploded into an outpouring of elation. A week on Saturday, they will hope to be even merrier. And that’s before we even get to the Friday night in Trafalgar Square.

Neil deserves considerable credit for his side’s two-legged win, with his tactics having proved spot on. The Sunderland boss opted for a flat back four in both legs, and his side defended superbly for the full 180 minutes, even accounting for one sensational ball from Barry Bannan which led to Wednesday’s goal.

The Black Cats’ defence was not seriously tested at the Stadium of Light, but that was never going to be the case amid the cauldron-like atmosphere of Hillsborough. There might not have been much quality on display last night, but there was plenty of nervous energy and edginess.

Sheffield Wednesday edged things in terms of possession, but the Owls’ hopes of claiming an early goal to level things up on aggregate were dashed by two excellent pieces of defending from Bailey Wright.

The Sunderland centre-half slid in to deal with a dangerous low ball from Wednesday wing-back Marvin Johnson, and was equally alert four minutes later as he threw his body in the way of Gregory’s shot.

Wright’s partnership with Danny Batth, a former Sheffield Wednesday loanee, has been a key part of Sunderland’s improved defensive resilience under Neil, and the pair were not fazed by the physical threat posed by Gregory.

Johnson’s breaks down the left were causing a problem – the former Middlesbrough full-back delivered another teasing cross midway through the first half that reached Jack Hunt at the back post, only for the right wing-back to shoot against one of his own players – but as the opening period wore on, so Sunderland became increasingly confident in possession and began to ask questions of their own.

They failed to test Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the Wednesday goal, but their ability to circulate the ball around the midfield took some of the sting out of the game, and Alex Pritchard created a half-chance shortly before the half-hour mark, floating in a free-kick that an under-pressure Batth glanced over the crossbar.

George Byers fired an audacious overhead kick straight at Anthony Patterson after a half-cleared corner was nodded back into the 18-yard box, but the fact that was the closest the hosts came to scoring before the interval said much about the quality of the Black Cats’ defending.

Both Wright and Batth were rock solid under the high ball, while Corry Evans did his usual good job of mopping up unselfishly in front of the back four. The defensive midfielder might not be the most flamboyant member of the Sunderland squad, but over the course of the last month, it can definitely be argued that he has developed into the most important.

His second-half task, like that of his team-mates, was clear – prevent Sheffield Wednesday from going ahead on the night and taking the game into extra-time.

Collectively, the Black Cats made a decent fist of denying the home side any time or space on the ball, and if anything, it was the visitors that were the more threatening team for lengthy periods after the interval.

Clarke dragged a shot wide after a corner routine that must have been developed on the training ground ended with the ball squirming into his path, and having been little more than a spectator in an attacking sense for much of the first half, the Spurs loanee found himself seeing much more of the ball after the break.

That said much for the increased attacking threat Sunderland were able to muster in the second half, and when Clarke dribbled his way into the penalty area on the hour mark and rolled the ball to Roberts, his fellow winger fired in a low drive that Peacock-Farrell saved down to his right.

The Owls responded in the 67th minute, with centre-half Sam Hutchinson rising to meet a looping header back into the box. A stretching Hutchinson managed to direct his header on target, but Patterson dived to his left to grab the ball.

At that stage, it looked as though Sheffield Wednesday were running out of ideas, and while Jordan Storey headed over after Josh Windass whipped in a cross from the left, there was never really a sense that the hosts were building the kind of relentless pressure that might have forced Sunderland’s defensive resolve to crack.

Ultimately, though, if you’re only defending a one-goal lead, it only takes one moment of magic to undo all your previous good work. That moment of magic came from Bannan, and meant Sunderland found themselves behind on the night and pegged back on aggregate with 16 minutes remaining.

With seemingly very little on as he looked up in midfield, Bannan threaded a slide-rule pass beyond the Sunderland defence, enabling Johnson to break clear down the left.

The full-back slid a low cross across the face of the six-yard box, and having broken ahead of the Black Cats’ central defenders, Gregory was left with the simple task of turning home from close range.

Suddenly, Wednesday’s players sensed blood, and Sunderland spent the final ten minutes desperately trying to cling on to prevent the concession of a second goal that would have ended their promotion dream.

Actually, it turned out to be the final 20 minutes, with referee James Linington adding ten minutes of injury time after a succession of second-half breaks, but instead of simply mounting a desperate rearguard action, the Black Cats broke upfield to claim the goal that settled things.

Clarke, who was the visitors’ brightest attacking threat throughout the second half, broke down the left and delivered a low ball into the area, and having broken infield, Roberts turned home from close range to send the travelling Sunderland support into ecstasy.