Phil Smith's verdict: A quietly stirring night as Sunderland and its support come together to grind out priceless lead

Sunderland celebrate Chris Maguire's opening goal
Sunderland celebrate Chris Maguire's opening goal
0
Have your say

Six years ago today, Manuel Almunia, with just seconds left on the clock, swooped to save a late Anthony Knockaert penalty.

He did it again as the Leicester forward met the follow-up, the tie perfectly poised at 2-2.

Watford broke and Troy Deeney finished, one of the most remarkable goals in living memory and a moment that cemented the legend of the play-offs.

The end-of-season lottery is one of the great innovations in the Football League, adding so much drama and excitement to the regular season.

The games themselves, though, are rarely like that.

This was a real play-off tie.

Two teams trying to battle their way through the physical and mental fatigue of an almost 60-game season. The fear of making a mistake looming as large as carrot of making a defining contribution.

Two fanbases probably quite ready for a break, quite tired of the sight of one another after ten exhausting months of toing and froing.

This was never going to be a classic.

Which made Sunderland's gritty win, and the atmosphere that went with it, quietly stirring in its own way.

It has been an immensely draining six weeks on Wearside since the Checkatrade Trophy final and the lacklustre end to the regular season did little to raise spirits ahead of this game.

There had been much talk and debate about attendances this week but it was instructive that Portsmouth only brought 1,300 fans north.

For both sets of fans, it has been an expensive, bruising, often exhilarating but always tiring campaign.

The consequence was a reduced gate but the quality of support was second to none.

Not because it was always defeaning or raucous, though it often was. Particularly at the start when there was an almighty din, and when Chris Maguire fired a glorious volley into the back of the net there was a roar that no one present will forget.

For the most part, however, it was the patience that was crucial.

This was always going to be a tense affair and the mood reflected that. Particularly towards the end as Sunderland looked to hold onto their lead, the game management was excellent and the response was reflective of that.

It was a result that keeps Portsmouth very much in the tie but one that will serve as a significant confidence boost on Wearside.

The Black Cats had been rocked just fifteen minutes before kick off when their talisman, Aiden McGeady, was ruled out after an injection designed to limit the pain from a foot injury failed to take affect.

A curious dynamic played out in which two teams set up specifically to get the most out of their explosive talent in the wide areas struggled to play with any real dynamism.

McGeady was a big miss for the Black Cats, while Portsmouth have a big issue of their own in that department.

Ronan Curtis was exceptional in the first part of the season but is badly out of form now and under increasing scrutiny, his performances seem to be declining. Similarly, Jamal Lowe has proven himself a serious talent this season but after sitting out the last day of the regular campaign due to fatigue, seems short of his best.

Little surprise, then, that neither side were able to carve out regular opportunities in front of goal.

Sunderland plugged away and Jack Ross timed the introduction of Maguire to perfection.

They looked well set to seize complete control of the tie before the controversial red shown to Alim Ozturk.

Again they dug deep and that Portsmouth left having not forced a save out of Jon McLaughlin said everything.

It is not a lead that will allow Sunderland to be complacent.

They will remember that game at Fratton Park earlier this season when the game got away from them in a frenzied 15-minute spell, one of the most atmospheric grounds in the country roaring their side on.

The job is only half done at best.

Sunderland, though, have proven to themselves above all else that they have nothing to fear from Kenny Jackett's side.

After a fraught fortnight this was a reassuring, uplifting night in which team and support came together to grind out a priceless lead.