The inside story of Sunderland's memorable Portsmouth triumph on a special night to be Red & White

Sunderland celebrate their semi final win over Portsmouth
Sunderland celebrate their semi final win over Portsmouth
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Chris Maguire is heading for the tunnel and just can’t quite resist.

Fratton Park is quiet now, just about.

There are a few Sunderland fans still remaining, still revelling, still basking in the pride and the relief.

‘Super, Super Kev’ rings out.

It’s been incessant for the best part of an hour, the Black Cats hero doing his best to fulfill his punditry duties in the makeshift studio just above the Melton End.

At one or two moments he seems visibly touched by the reception, and there’s an obvious pride when he talks of this Sunderland success. It’s a night to enjoy being Red and White.

Maguire applauds that last gaggle of fans one last time, turns, motions to the other three stands and cups his ears.

The message doesn’t need translating.

The build up to this second leg had a slightly surreal feel as Portsmouth players and staff tried to raise the stakes and create a siege mentality, as they were of course quite entitled to do.

Gareth Evans said they would ‘batter’ Sunderland.

Nathan Thompson accused fans and players of ‘celebrating like they’d won the World Cup’ after the first leg.

In his programme notes, Chief Executive Mark Catlin said that despite some ‘wild celebrations’, this was far from done.

Fratton Park certainly created an almighty din to begin with, but it was to Sunderland’s credit that at full time there was nothing but gentle applause for a season coming to an abrupt end.

Jack Ross had come up with a gameplan and while he needed his goalkeeper to make one or two big saves, generally he watched on as his side dug in and kept their opponents at arm’s length.

Both managers had sprung a surprise an hour before kick-off.

Kenny Jackett had made a bold call, dropping both Ronan Curtis and Jamal Lowe to the bench.

Ross had anticipated and prepared for one of the players to drop out, fully expecting Gareth Evans and Brett Pitman to start, with the former in a wide position he caused so much damage in at Wembley.

Dropping both wingers would have come as a shock, though as an orthodox winger, a start for Viv Solomon-Otabor did not alter the shape of Jackett’s side too much.

Ross had spoken both publicly and privately of the need for composure in this game.

To that end, there was a surprise return for Grant Leadbitter and that decision paid dividends. The extra body in front of defence was valuable, sweeping up second balls every time they dropped and ensuring that as much as possible, possession wasn’t simply gifted back and the pressure reapplied immediately.

Ross had said that his side would not sit in for the whole game, but this was a conscious decision to ensure they could be tough to carve open early on.

Pace and width was left on the bench so that when the game opened up later on, the Black Cats had runners who could potentially deliver the killer blow.

The wonderful cameo of Lewis Morgan in the Checkatrade Trophy semi-final at Bristol Rovers was the perfect example of what could be achieved.

It also marked something of a departure from the normal Sunderland gameplan this season, which has invariably been to build up the play and switch it out wide, relying on their talented wingers to create something in the final third.

Here they narrowed the game and Jackett’s changes did the same. It played into Sunderland’s hands and even when Jamal Lowe arrived in the second half, he played off the right where he was generally forced to cut inside.

Portsmouth simply never stretched the Black Cats and the effect on the home crowd was audible.

Portsmouth’s gameplan was not subtle but designed with solid logic.

That it was ultimately ineffective reflected Sunderland’s growing improvements at the back. All season they have been vulnerable to sides playing direct and putting the heart of the side under pressure with early long balls.

Not so long ago, it would have been the obvious way to get at them and that’s how Jackett tried to play it.

Matt Clarke is exceptional at bringing the ball out from the back and driving into space but here he looked to hit Oli Hawkins as early as possible.

Let Hawkins create uncertainty, and have the runners do the rest. The dangerous target man did have his moments, and McLaughlin had to do superbly to block an effort from Evans after Hawkins towered over his marker at the back post.

But generally the Black Cats were robust. Alim Ozturk continued his fine revival and in the wide areas nothing was given up.

They had started brightly in going forward but towards the end of the half there was a lack of composure to their play.

So Ross' half-time message was about trying to correct that, and his experienced midfield showed their diligence after the break. Clever triangles, rotating the ball well, slowly but surely taking the pace out of the game and controlling the tempo.

Ross made his switches, though as it happened the expected siege never really came and those breakaways were never really needed.

His subs did their job, Will Grigg in particular killing the game with a flurry of clever touches, buying time and winning vital set plays, taking his team ever close to the final whistle.

When it came, there was a gentle irony that the celebrations were anything but wild.

There is a job still to be done and a major challenge on the horizon.

There was pride, though.

Grant Leadbitter sunk to his knees and punched the air. Lee Cattermole and George Honeyman head straight for him, the boyhood Sunderland fan who had produced something quite remarkable in that 90 minutes, something to be very proud of.

Luke O’Nien and Max Power bolt straight for the away end, where the celebrations are beginning in earnest.

‘Super Kev, Super Kev’.

Ross is generally the most measured manager you can find but there is no disguising his pride. This is as close to a wild celebration as you will see from the Scot, a hug and a roar for anyone in the vicinity.

Sunderland’s players have quite fairly taken some heat for the way they finished the season but over 180 minutes they have produced a controlled performance, tenacious in shutting out an opponent who have caused so many teams so many problems, particularly on this Fratton turf.

0-0 has never felt so good.

The post-match message is one of a job well done, and even bigger one still to do.

But after a challenging period there is real pride and unity in the Sunderland ranks.

Lee Cattermole: “The manager came in difficult circumstances and has been unbelievable, so professional, leading every day….

George Honeyman: “To lead your team out at Wembley once is, to do it twice…..

Sunderland’s captain is visibly emotional at the prospect.

They depart for the bus, many with a beer in hand, no doubt for a few renditions of Two Times.

In the away end they’re almost gone now, but you can still just about hear it. ‘Super, Super Kev.’

Not Done Yet.