Trai Hume headed Sunderland to a comeback victory over Luton to ensure they have a priceless lead to defend in the second leg of their Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-final.
Hume’s 63rd-minute effort secured a 2-1 first leg victory at a packed Stadium of Light after on-loan Manchester United midfielder Amad Diallo had cancelled out Elijah Adebayo’s early opener with a stunning strike.
It was no more than Tony Mowbray’s men deserved from a game for which they once again lined up without a recognised central defender, yet kept alive their hopes of a second successive promotion via the play-offs.
Luton, who finished 11 points better off than the Black Cats at the end of the regular season, will nevertheless feel confident they can overturn the narrowest of deficits at Kenilworth Road on Tuesday night – although they will have to do so against opponents who won 11 of their 23 fixtures on the road.
Early blows were traded as Hatters frontman Carlton Morris headed tamely into Anthony Patterson’s arms before Jack Clarke rifled a shot into the side-netting at the other end in an open start.
The visitors, who lost in the semi-finals 12 months ago, were fortunate to escape unscathed when keeper Ethan Horvath palmed Patrick Roberts’ curling attempt into the path of Joe Gelhardt, who was unable to adjust his feet quickly enough to convert the rebound.
The Hatters took advantage of the escape almost immediately.
Sunderland failed to deal with an 11th-minute corner and, after Patterson had bravely blocked Alfie Doughty’s shot at the back post, Adebayo pounced on the loose ball to score.
Momentum shifted with the goal and Adebayo might have doubled his tally with 24 minutes gone had Hume not thrown himself into the path of his goal-bound effort, and Patterson had to be alert to field Doughty’s near-post free-kick.
But Sunderland were back in it six minutes before the break when, after Pelly Mpanzu had been booked for a crude challenge on Roberts, Alex Pritchard rolled the resulting free-kick to Amad, who curled an unstoppable shot past Horvath.
Gelhardt steered Pritchard’s cross wide under pressure from Gabe Osho as the Black Cats resumed in determined fashion, although the game became increasingly scrappy with both teams guilty of turning over possession cheaply.
It was the home side who finally summoned up the quality to make a difference when Hume met Clarke’s 63-minute cross with a firm header and steered the ball into the bottom corner to spark delirious celebrations among a crowd of 46,060.