Advantage Sunderland after Hume seals narrow first-leg win against Luton | Championship

Could Sunderland be about to be promoted by mistake? For a long time, it has felt as though no matter what they did, it would all go wrong. Relegations, defeats at Wembley, misfortune with average points, pratfall after pratfall.

“Why,” as one tearful fan filmed for the Sunderland Til I Die documentary asked as she left the 2019 playoff final defeat to Charlton, “can it never be us?” Except suddenly it looks as though it might be. Unexpectedly and almost despite themselves, it looks as though the rise that began with victory over Wycombe at Wembley last year might be about to continue.

The second leg will not be easy. Luton, as the Sunderland manager, Tony Mowbray, said, are “really athletic, really powerful… well-coached”. They have had a fine season and to be so close to the top flight less than a decade after returning to the Football League is in itself an achievement.

They will surely get the ball into the box more than they did here, and because of the injuries that left Sunderland with one 6ft-plus outfielder and a back three comprising a converted winger, a converted full-back and Luke O’Nien, who has played pretty much everywhere with the same baby-faced ruggedness, that should represent a major threat.

It was no great surprise when Luton struck with their first corner of the game, Elijah Adebayo firing in after Anthony Patterson had saved from Alfie Doughty. But thereafter Sunderland, with Pierre Ekwah dominant in midfield, restricted Luton’s delivery into the box.

“We lost a goal to a set play which we knew we were vulnerable from,” said Mowbray. “It’s hard if you’re 5ft 10in and trying to win headers against somebody 6ft 5in. We lack physicality but I thought we competed really well all over the pitch – snarling dogs, if you like. And Ekwah showed what a class act he is.”

But on a smaller pitch at Kenilworth Road, the second leg could become a barrage. “In terms of physicality, everybody’s making a big thing of that, but they compete really well,” said the Luton manager, Rob Edwards. “You don’t have to be 6ft 5in to win a header but it will be slightly different on Tuesday. But if we go too direct too soon the game becomes a bit more transitional and you’re giving their best players more space.”

Having started well, Sunderland struggled to find their rhythm, but they are a side with individuals who can provide inspiration without much warning, nobody more than Amad Diallo. Six minutes before half-time, he added to his catalogue of remarkable left-footed strikes whipped into the top corner, this time with a free-kick. If Charles Reep had watched only him, he would have concluded the position of maximum opportunity, far from being an area about six yards from the back post, was a sliver of turf roughly 15 to 25 yards out just to the right of goal.

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Amad Diallo celebrates after scoring Sunderland’s equaliser against Luton.
Amad Diallo celebrates after scoring Sunderland’s equaliser against Luton. Photograph: Alex Dodd/CameraSport/Getty Images

Diallo, on loan from Manchester United, has been the outstanding player this season, but in a season in which thigh and achilles injuries restricted Ross Stewart to only 11 starts, Ellis Simms was recalled by Everton, Corry Evans has not played since January and centre-backs have become as endangered as drummers in Spinal Tap, the key has been resilience. Mowbray appears simultaneously bewildered by how good some of his squad is and by how miserable luck seems never to faze them.

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Playoff roundup: Bolton and Barnsley level, Salford beat Stockport


Dion Charles denied Barnsley a vital first-leg advantage with a second-half equaliser to earn Bolton a 1-1 draw in their  League One play-off semi-final, while in League Two Salford beat Stockport 1-0.

The Northern Ireland international Charles scored his 21st league goal just four minutes after Nicky Cadden threatened to put Barnsley in the driving seat for Friday’s return at Oakwell. The eventual winners will meet Sheffield Wednesday or Peterborough at Wembley for the right to join Plymouth and Ipswich in the Championship next season.

Barnsley finished one place and five points in front of their hosts after the regular season. But Wanderers enjoyed a more profitable end to the campaign and showed their resilience after falling behind.

t was Barnsley who looked most likely to break the first-half stalemate. Luca Connell, a former Bolton academy midfielder, drilled a lot shot from distance that James Trafford – in his farewell home appearance  – did not hold first time. Adam Phillips thumped another effort over the crossbar while Trafford, a Manchester City loanee, blocked Slobodan Tedic’s flick.

Devante Cole turned Ricardo Santos but could not direct his attempt on target while Trafford was called into action to save from Cadden, who did then put the Tykes in front with his sixth goal of the campaign after 63 minutes. Wanderers failed to clear a Phillips corner and Cadden fired home from the edge of the area after Cole played the ball back into his path.

Ian Evatt, the Bolton manager, immediately introduced the substitutes Dan N’Lundulu and Kieran Lee for Elias Kachunga and Josh Sheehan, and within four minutes the home side were level. Harry Isted had not had a shot to save but when called upon to deal with Randell Williams’ left-wing centre, he could only push the ball towards Charles for the equaliser.

Bobby Thomas twice went close to restoring the visitors’ advantage. Andersen then showed his qualities with a vital block from N’Lundulu but neither team could find a crucial second goal.

Salford claimed the advantage over Stockport with a 1-0 home win at the Peninsula Stadium. The hosts were much the better side but all they could muster was the single first-half goal from experienced striker Matt Smith.

Neil Wood’s side could well go on to rue not taking a healthier advantage into next Saturday’s second leg, although they did condemn County to their first defeat since February.

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For a time in the second half, as Sunderland began to put together the long skeins of passing that have characterised them at their best this season, the red-and-white waves began to flow.

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Smith heads Salford to first-leg lead over Stockport


Salford claimed the advantage over local rivals Stockport with a 1-0 win in the first leg of their League Two play-off semi-final at the Peninsula Stadium.

The hosts were much the better side on the night – and the shot statistics bore that out – but all they could muster was the single first-half goal from experienced striker Matt Smith.

Neil Wood’s side could well go on to rue not taking a healthier advantage into next Saturday’s second leg, although they did condemn County to their first defeat since February.

There was a terrific atmosphere ahead of the tie between two close neighbours. The Ammies, who ended the regular campaign four points behind fourth-placed Stockport, made the early running.

Conor McAleny saw an early effort from distance deflected behind, while County goalkeeper Ben Hinchliffe then had to charge off his line to bravely deny veteran Adrian Mariappa.

It was taking Stockport time to settle into a decent rhythm and they were denied by the woodwork with their first meaningful attack in the 16th minute.

Connor Evans’ initial strike was superbly parried by keeper Alex Cairns, with skipper Ryan Croasdale then thumping the crossbar from the follow-up.

Barely a minute later the hosts notched what proved to be the evening’s winner. Elliot Watt swung over a perfect cross for Smith and he out-jumped Fraser Horsfall before powering home a header from six yards.
It was almost two just past the half-hour mark when Hinchliffe was forced to dive full length to keep out Stevie Mallan’s superb curling free-kick.

Salford went close with the first opportunity following the restart, with Smith teeing up Callum Hendry for a low drive which Hinchliffe saved well.

Stockport passes were going astray, while hosts Salford were collectively tidy in possession and looked much more of a threat.
Just before the hour mark, Hendry was again afforded plenty of space just outside the Stockport box, but this time he blazed high and wide.

Stockport boss Dave Challinor made a couple of attacking changes in a bid to light a much-needed spark, but Salford’s back-line were comfortably repelling any threat thrown at them.

At the other end the Ammies almost bagged a second when Hinchliffe produced a brilliant diving stop to keep out McAleny’s strike.

Stockport upped their tempo somewhat in the closing stages, with subs Isaac Olaofe and Ryan Rydel both going close, but they could not find an equaliser they would arguably scarcely have deserved.

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It was only for about 10 minutes but it brought a most unexpected thing: a Sunderland goal from a corner, something they had previously achieved this season only in the FA Cup at Shrewsbury. It was not – obviously – just slung into the box, but tidily constructed, Diallo at the heart of it, before Clarke crossed for Trai Hume to nod in. If you are role-playing as a centre-back, you may as well go the whole hog.

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Like Luton, Sunderland have been much better away from home than they have at home. They will again, in the second leg, be patching a defence together from any players they can find who are not wingers. It shouldn’t work but somehow, at the moment, that doesn’t seem to matter.

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