Phil Smith's verdict: Inside the 45 minutes that underlined Sunderland's pride and turned the League One promotion race on its head

Sunderland significantly boosted their automatic promotion hopes with a late winner at Spotland
Sunderland significantly boosted their automatic promotion hopes with a late winner at Spotland
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Jack Ross emerged from the tunnel like it had been a 0-0 draw, a game in which both sides had nothing to play for.

Of course, it had not been that way, one minute from the end, when George Honeyman pounced to secure three crucial points.

Ross, like everyone else, had celebrated wildly as a draining, pivotal week concluded with a significant shift in the chase for second.

Once that emotion had subsided a touch, it was onto the next one. A job still to do be done, seven more cup finals on the horizon, plenty of twists and turns on the horizon.

Never too high, never too low.

That has been Ross all season and is a key reason they stand in this promising position, their fate now very firmly in their own hands.

There was no disguising his pride at his win, nevertheless.

And his pride in his players for pulling it off.

It is easy to forget that they were missing Aiden McGeady, Lee Cattermole, Chris Maguire, Duncan Watmore.

He has had to draw everything from his squad in the last seven days and everyone has delivered.

If they go up, there will be no doubting that these 45 minutes were crucial.

At half time, you could have been forgiven for fearing a missed opportunity, a flatness and a tension.

When Portsmouth scored again just seconds into the second half against Wycombe Wanderers, they looked like ending the afternoon the big winners.

Barnsley losing, Sunderland losing.

Ross had much to ponder at half time. His side had not been particularly poor, but they were unquestionably short of the levels they had hit against Accrington Stanley and they were also facing an opponent who looked far more composed and balanced than John Coleman’s side.

The goal had rocked the Black Cats, who went into the break wobbling.

Ross changed little. Just a boost of confidence, a reinforcing of the plan he felt could win the game.

It made for a pulsating second half.

Brian Barry-Murphy had been unbeaten since replacing Keith Hill as Rochdale boss and it was obvious why.

In Ian Henderson and Aaron Wilbraham he had a canny, experienced forward pairing and his centre-backs were robust. In midfield, they played with composure.

It had been a gamble to stick with his wing-back system given Sunderland’s strength in wide areas but they competed well; Sunderland unquestionably missing the drive and tenacity of McGeady.

Neither manager blinked and eventually Ross got his rewards.

It was a moment of real individual quality to get level, Charlie Wyke perhaps not quite creating something out of nothing but doing superbly to turn away from his marker and finish.

Both sides pushed for more.

Rochdale’s wing-backs pushed on and for a while looked the most likely.

Slowly but surely, however, they tired and the Black Cats began to sense their moment. The atmosphere in the away end began to build and build.

They were driven on by Dylan McGeouch, quiet in the first half but excellent in the second. He lifted the tempo and when the winner finally came, it had been the move they were looking for all game.

Luke O’Nien’s fitness had once again been exceptional, driving into space every time the chance presented itself.

McGeouch found him with a good switch of play, and the right-back crossed for Honeyman, who had made a clever run across the box.

The captain struggled to contain himself and the significance was lost on no one.

Barnsley had caused a few jitters by pulling a goal back, but Burton’s Marcus Harness restored it and this turned the promotion race on its head.

Burton will provide tough opposition on Tuesday but Ross and his squad could not be better placed.

It was a week that started in heartbreak but ended in ecstasy and an immense amount of pride.