After letting former Huddersfield Town playmaker Alex Pritchard and ex-Middlesbrough loanee pull the strings for the first hour or more, the visitors can count themselves fortunate they only have a one-goal deficit – given to them by the former but gifted by an uncharacteristic Sam Hutchinson error – to overhaul at Hillsborough on Monday.
It is the beauty of two-legged football that we could see a completely different Owls side that night but we will have to after they were out-thought tactically, outworked and outscored but not put out of reach.
But the thing about having two clubs of such stature meeting in front of the biggest crowd a play-off at this level has ever witnessed – it fell slightly short of the League One record set here when Bradford City visited four years ago – is that the nerves are palpable.
However big these clubs are, the end-of-season league table shows they are only the fourth and fifth best in League One, although the order was a huge surprise on the balance of play last night.
Sunderland almost seemed afraid to grasp the prize that was on offer, and let the Owls off the hook.
As half-time approached, away manager Darren Moore was probably reasonably content, if no more, with what he had seen from his limited side.
His team had defended stoutly, weathered an early storm and seemed to have slightly becalmed Sunderland’s influential inside-forwards Pritchard and Roberts after a rip-roaring start. It was to prove a cruel false sense of security.
Roberts shot at Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Corry Evans fired wide from the edge of the area; Lynden Gooch’s mishit cross caused the goalkeeper as many problems as anything. Jordan Storey and the fit-again Harlee Dean threw themselves into a couple of heroic blocks.
The Stadium of Light, all thumping noise and mosaics, dimmed just a touch.
When a League One match is watched by a crowd of 44,742 –only 2,000 of them Wednesdayites because of the restrictions agreed by both clubs – you want to keep them out of it and in that respect it was a gritty away-from-home performance in a two-legged tie.
Both regular-season matches had, after all, been hammerings by the hosts.
The problem – the big problem – was the Owls could not get on the ball in midfield themselves, with Barry Bannan particularly anonymous after going off injured the previous weekend. He played the full 90 minutes but had little effect on any of them. They need him to somehow be sharper in just a few days’ time.
The hosts had two-thirds of the first-half possession. The Black Cats’ giant centre-backs were quite happy when the ball was lumped in the general direction of Lee Gregory and Saido Berahino.
When Gregory was picked out by Liam Palmer’s 26th-minute cross he was too far out and wide to really trouble Lee Burge and as so often had no one to help him out.
But then it happened.
Hutchinson had been a big figure in the rearguard action, a thumping tenth-minute tackle to concede a corner setting the tone for the stout defending which was to come.
But when Sunderland broke in first-half stoppage time Hutchinson dallied as he faced his own goal and was robbed by Ross Stewart. Peacock-Farrell looked to have won his one-on-one when he got his legs in the way of the shot by the “Loch Ness Drogba”, but Stewart was able to get to the loose ball and force it home from a tight angle.
Suddenly Pritchard, Roberts and 42,000 others were back in the game. It was the last thing the away team needed.
The game restarted tumultuously, Pritchard curling a shot onto the crossbar with Peacock-Farrell beaten, then seeing a shot tipped over as Wednesday’s brief dalliance with Hutchinson in front of a back four failed to get to grips with him.
Dennis Cirkin headed over a glorious chance when Danny Batth headed a cross to him.
Striker Josh Windass’s introduction could do little to turn the tide, Roberts cutting inside and furious he allowed his shot to be deflected wide. Another missed the target all on its own.
As space started to open in midfield and Pritchard and Roberts were substituted to try and close it up, but the Owls huffed and puffed to little effect.
Massimo Luongo was able to clip the ball to Liam Palmer but off balance, he put his header wide of the target after 77 minutes. Instead the best chance fell to Stewart in the 89th minute, gifted to him by Peacock-Farrell’s poor header outside of the area. He was, though, unable to take it.
It was good news for Wednesday, great news for the neutral owed a bit of entertainment after a scrappy first game. The second leg is still very much alive.
Sunderland: Patterson; Wright, Batth, Cirkin; Gooch, Evans, O’Nien, Clarke (Doyle 90); Pritchard (Matete 80), Roberts (Embleton 80); Stewart. Unused substitutes: Neil, McGeady, Hume, Hoffmann.
Sheffield Wednesday: Peacock-Farrell; Hutchinson, Dean, Storey; Palmer, Byers (Dele-Bashiru 88), Luongo, Bannan, Johnson; Berahino (Windass 56), Gregory. Unused substitutes: Wildsmith, Hunt, Dunkley, Mendez-Laing, Paterson.
Referee: M Donohue (Greater Manchester).