Will Grigg and Lewis Morgan might have shot us into the Checkatrade Trophy final but football matches aren’t always decided by goals.
Maybe my view is skewed by the position I played but I always feel big moments at the other end of the pitch strengthen your resolve to win.
Goals give you the chance to win but defensive actions secure it. They give you the belief that this is going to be your day. Jon McLaughlin’s recovery save from a first save where the ball comes away from him when the game was still finely balanced at 1-0 was one of those moments.
Even though it was of his own creation, to me, that’s when the match was won. Easy to say that in retrospect I know, but it was a huge moment in positive terms for Sunderland – but also the effect on Bristol Rovers would have been huge too.
That was their chance. That was an opportunity served on a plate by McLaughlin failing to deal with a simple-ish shot from the edge of the box. Looking at the keeper’s head and body position being too upright, the ball always had a chance of coming back off him.
A big telltale sign that his technique was wrong was how much effort it took to get forward again to retrieve the situation. But with a mixture of athleticism and bravery, retrieve the situation he does.
Imagine being a Bristol Rovers player then. Imagine your eyes lighting up as you see an open goal to tap the ball in to, only to be denied by the hands of McLaughlin.
What impressed me most about the save was at no point do his eyes leave the ball. His determination to not be beaten is obvious and from my perspective, whoever the player is, the mistake is irrelevant. It’s the reaction that matters and within those few seconds McLaughlin and Sunderland grow.
To their credit, Bristol Rovers tried to push their way back in to the game but Sunderland were a level above. Controlled, confident and giving the kind of performance required to progress with the least amount of fuss.
And now Wembley awaits. Whatever happens on March 31 is hardly irrelevant but psychologically a barrier has been broken and expectations have been met as far as this competition is concerned.
Rightly or wrong, we were the top seed and the big draw so credit to Jack Ross and his side for coming through that to reward the fans with their day out.
Far from being a distraction, this is just the beginning. The serious business starts on Tuesday at Oakwell and with this bunch of players going there looking to firstly win the game and secondly, to secure their place in the side to walk out at the national stadium.
Cup ties and finals only become a distraction after subsequent losses can be blamed on them and the way Jack Ross has handled the bigger games in this cup, the likes of the derby game and this semi-final, has been like a professional poker player. Even in the wake of reaching Wembley, there were no great celebrations. Just a matter of fact, business-like manner. There was an appreciation of their effort and achievement but focus was very much maintained.
There’s a good argument this season has already been a success and in many ways it has been, but it feels as if even if there is victory at Wembley and promotion is achieved any which way we can, the next objective of tackling the Championship will be the only thing on the manager’s mind.