Black Cats have long been associated with witches and witchcraft, with those roots dating back to medieval times. But those connections seem to be forming again in the 21st century as some form of magic surrounds Sunderland Football Club in their quest to return to the Premier League.
Promoted from League One last term, they are attempting to become just the fourth team to go from the third tier to first in just two years. Watford, Southampton and Norwich City are the others, while no team has risen to the top with two successive play-off campaigns.
Yet after a 2-1 win over Luton Town in the first leg, the Black Cats are just 180 minutes away from that remarkable achievement. It shouldn’t be possible. Not with all the injuries they have. Much has been made of Ross Stewart’s absence and the fact that Ellis Simms was recalled by Everton in January, but Joe Gelhardt has added a different dimension up top since his January arrival.
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From an attacking point of view, Sunderland haven’t struggled at all. In Amad Diallo they have a player worth around £40m on loan and he has proved his Manchester United pedigree on several occasions so far. No more so than in that first leg. When everything looked to be going against the home side and they were being overpowered physically, he came up with something spectacular.
Alex Pritchard rolled him the ball from a free-kick and the 20-year-old curled one left-footed into the top corner. It was stupendously good. He is stupendously good. Then we have Jack Clarke. The mercurial wide man came up with a stunning cross for the second, and this attacking talent may well win the tie for Tony Mowbray.
When they go forward they are spell-binding at times, but it is at the back where the real magic is happening. Once again, injuries have hampered Mowbray’s best laid plans. Danny Batth and Dan Ballard have both been ruled out and so the gaffer has had to wave a magic wand once again.
‘Transformo’ - Luke O’Nien becomes a dominant centre-back.
‘Centre-baccio’ - Trai Hume moves into the heart of defence, and starts scoring goals.
‘Wingardium defendo’ - Lynden Gooch fills in at full back.
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But the most baffling decision that somehow paid off in the first leg was the ‘three and a half’ at the back Sunderland somehow pulled off. Patrick Roberts - yes, the small and tricky winger/number ten - was nominally chosen to defend in that right-back area when the Black Cats didn’t have the ball.
In the opening half an hour, it looked like a disaster as they struggled to get out, but with Clarke doing his defensive work on the left, they somehow found their feet. Better than that, from 1-0 they managed to get back on track and get the crowd onside. That turnaround was a continuation of a spectacular season.
Pierre Ekwah is just 21-years-old and made just four Championship starts across the regular season, but in his first ever 90 minute match at this level, he was flawless. So good with the ball and a physical presence off it, he is just another young gun finding his feet on the big stage.
Now they travel to Kenilworth Road with something to defend. Not that they should try and do that. Luton have the second best away record but only the ninth best home record. All the signs point to an onslaught from Rob Edwards’ men as they strive to reach Wembley, but Mowbray’s magic could tie them up in knots.
Succeed here and the magic show continues under the arch. Sunderland are just 180 minutes from the most magical return to the Premier League.