IT was the move that sent Sunderland to Wembley. With the clock having ticked into the 93rd minute at Hillsborough, Jack Clarke scampered away down the left-hand side before squaring the ball into the middle. Patrick Roberts, breaking in from the right, burst ahead of his marker and slotted a composed first-time finish through the legs of Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell. Two of the Black Cats’ most creative players, combining in a moment of magic.

Like the 2,000 travelling supporters housed behind the goal at the Leppings Lane End, Alex Neil could not contain his euphoria. But while the Sunderland boss was delighted to see Clarke and Roberts combining so effectively in the Sheffield Wednesday penalty area, he was equally pleased with the shift they had put in during the previous 180 minutes of the two-legged semi-final.

Yes, Neil wants his creative talents to feel empowered to express themselves when they have possession. But when Sunderland do not have the ball, he demands they work every bit as hard as his team’s defenders. It isn’t always easy to convince ball-playing attackers they need to focus on the defensive side of their game. When it comes to Clarke and Roberts, though, it is an argument that Neil has clearly won.

“The hardest thing always, as a coach, is to get really creative players to work extremely hard,” agreed the Sunderland boss. “But our lads have got an appetite, and they’ve got an understanding of the greater good.

“The rest of their team-mates demand it, I demand it, and they demand it from themselves now as well, which is great. You don’t win anything without hard work and graft, that’s a prerequisite immediately. Then, if you’ve got quality, that’s a bonus, and we’ve got that quality. But we’ve equally got the hard work and graft to go with it.”

That graft will be needed against Wycombe at Wembley a week on Saturday, with Gareth Ainsworth’s side renowned for their physicality, commitment and well-drilled organisation.

Over the course of the season, Sunderland have outperformed Wycombe in every attacking metric going, yet the Chairboys find a way to win, and Neil readily accepts his side will have to match their opponents in terms of work rate and energy if their superior creative skills are ultimately to prove decisive.

It is worth remembering at this juncture that Neil did not sign any of the players currently at his disposal. Lee Johnson moulded this team, and in the first half of the season, its soft underbelly was its downfall. Heavy defeats at Portsmouth, Rotherham and Bolton exposed defensive deficiencies that looked like being Sunderland’s undoing, but without changing any of the personnel, Neil has strengthened things up to the extent that the Black Cats will head to Wembley on a 15-game unbeaten run.

Plenty of managers insist they need at least one or two transfer windows in order to enact significant change. Neil has debunked that theory in the space of three months.

“That’s your job as a manager,” he said. “You see a lot of coaches going into foreign teams, and they don’t sign the players.

"I think, provided you’ve got an influence over what you want to do with the club, and how you want to take the club forward, then that’s the biggest thing for me.

“I’m certainly not power-hungry by any means, but I’ve got standards that need to be adhered to, and if they’re not, then that’s not going to be acceptable.

"Thankfully, here, it’s been a case of, ‘There’s your team – win games’. That’s what I enjoy – and they’re my team.”