Sunderland face Lincoln City on Wednesday night in the semi-final of the EFL Trophy. Lee Johnson’s side beat MK Dons 3-0 in the quarter-finals, while Michael Appleton’s team beat Hull on penalties.
The Imps currently sit top of League One on 53 points, with the Black Cats nine points behind in sixth place. However, Sunderland did thrash Lincoln 4-0 back in December, courtesy of a Charlie Wyke brace, as well as goals from Grant Leadbitter and Jack Diamond.
Ahead of the cup tie, I spoke to Gary Hutchinson of The Stacey West Lincoln fan site, to discuss if he believes his side can reach the final at Wembley, as well as what Sunderland fans can expect during the match.
MC: Lincoln won the EFL Trophy in 2018 under Danny Cowley. How serious are the club taking the competition given your position at the top of League One?
GH: It’s being taken very seriously, and the reason is Michael Appleton. He’s always valued the competition, he took Oxford to successive finals there, losing to Barnsley and Coventry City. I strongly suspect he feels he has unfinished business and that has been reflected in some strong squads in the competition.
That said, we were forced to play strong teams in the last couple of games due to Covid ravaging the squad, and those that did step up, such as Zack Elbouzedi, impressed hugely. Our players have been named ‘Player of the Round’ for the last three rounds now, which I feel reflects on the importance of the competition in the manager’s eyes.
MC: Imps manager Michael Appleton was linked with the Sunderland job back in 2018 – what is he doing so well at Lincoln that is making the team perform above expectations?
GH: He has implemented a very different philosophy to what we are used to. Usually, ‘little old Lincoln’ have to be robust, pump it long, fight for everything. He’s redefined our style completely, bringing in young and vibrant players with big futures and plenty of enthusiasm.
There is a change of emphasis now, short passing, quick build up down the flanks, lots of switching from right to left. That only works if the training is strong though, and Michael is a coach first and foremost. He’s coached good players at West Brom and Leicester and he’s managed to bring quality players to the club, using some contacts, who understand what he is trying to achieve.
MC: Alex Palmer tops the League One clean sheet table with 13 in 27 matches, and Lincoln have conceded the fewest league goals so far this season. What makes your defence so secure and resilient?
GH: Honestly, I’m not always sure! Alex Palmer has been sensational in the sticks, but it hasn’t been save after save every game by any stretch of the imagination. Our back four hasn’t been settled either, at any one time Adam Jackson, Joe Walsh or Lewis Montsma have been injured and having all three available has been rare.
I think it is just hard work and good drills to be honest – our defenders are all honest, hard-working and willing to put their bodies on the line. We also defend from the front – Tom Hopper might not get the most goals of any forward, but I bet he wins more defensive headers from set-pieces than most central defenders at other clubs. That ‘all for one’ attitude definitely resonates throughout the squad. Remember, we conceded four against you and three against Pompey, without that on our record we’d look even stronger.
MC: Jorge Grant is Lincoln’s top scorer from midfield this season and recently signed a new deal until 2023. Is he integral to your success this season?
GH: Yes, he is. His goals have mainly come from the penalty spot, so don’t be fooled by the goalscoring midfielder tag as he only has three or four from open play. It isn’t about his goals though, he is such a creative force, pinging balls 50 or 60 yards crossfield to feet, shuffling and turning on the spot to leave players for dead.
Against Gillingham, he performed a 360 roulette and nutmeg in the middle of the park; he’s exquisite. He works really hard, all the time, and can play in a number of positions too. He’s vice-captain, penned a new deal recently and represented everything good about Michael Appleton’s team, which is ironic as he is one of only two Danny Cowley signings left at the club.
MC: Dutch defender Lewis Montsma has scored eight goals this season, the same amount as your first-choice striker Tom Hopper. Is he phenomenal from set-pieces?
GH: No, not really. Some of his goals have come from set-pieces, but he’s a deceptively good footballer. There’s a goal he scored against Blackpool where he juggles the ball like Dennis Bergkamp at the back stick before rifling a volley home – that’s Montsma.
He bagged a drive from about 35 yards against Rochdale, and hit the bar against Crewe from almost the halfway line. We’re not actually a big threat from corners, in fact we scored on Sunday night after taking a corner quickly, rather than delivering into the box. It’s a big of a bugbear of mine that we don’t offer more from corners, but I guess when you’re top of the league you shouldn’t complain!
MC: New signings Regan Poole and Morgan Rogers are both cup-tied for Wednesday. Will that be a big loss?
GH: Not really. Both are good players, no doubt, but Poole only made his first start on Sunday and TJ Eyoma is a superb full-back. he’s on loan from Spurs and he’s got a big future in the game, he’s got power, pace and he loves to get forward.
As for Rogers, he’s another top prospect, but he is replaceable in this side. If he doesn’t play, ten-goal Anthony Scully may, he’s unpredictable from wide and loves to get inside too. Harry Anderson might play, he’s our longest-serving player, a winner with us at Wembley in 2018, and he’s always got a goal in him too. We can definitely manage their absence.
MC: Former Sunderland midfielder Liam Bridcutt went off injured during Lincoln’s recent 0-0 draw with Hull, will he be missing on Wednesday and if so how big of a loss will he be?
GH: He is a huge loss. I love Bridcutt, he is the pivot around which our entire side function. Playing in the four role he picks the ball deep, protects the back four and is always willing to add to an attack. There are options in the middle of the park – Jorge Grant usually deputises there and Max Sanders who recently signed from Brighton is the long-term heir-apparent for Bridcutt.
His injury is my only major concern, not for Wednesday night, but going forward. In all honesty, despite Wembley being at stake, our clash is a free hit. If we win, great, but it isn’t like fans can go to Wembley, is it? If we lose but give a good account of ourselves, then there’s no shame, but the ultimate goal is Championship football. In that context, Bridcutt is a huge miss.
MC: Who are the eleven Lincoln players you expect Appleton to select against Sunderland and what style of play can Johnson’s team expect to encounter?
GH: The style is set in stone – patient passing and possession, looking to explode into life in the final third. We’ll be happy to let you have possession deep too, but will hope to cut that off should you venture into the final third. I prefer us against teams like you, because you try to beat us, rather than setting up not to get beat. That plays into our hands, if we get it right.
As for the XI, it’s a tough call. I’d go for Palmer, Eyoma, Jackson, Montsma, Edun, Sanders, Grant, McGrandles, Johnson, Scully and Anderson.
MC: Sunderland shocked everyone by winning 4-0 at Sincil Bank back in December, what is your honest prediction of the score this time around?
GH: It’s too tough to call, who knows what sides get put out? We went to Hull with four subs and were right up against it, but who could predict an outcome from a game with so many variables.
However, on our podcast, I’ve been saying ‘name on the trophy’ since game one and with Michael’s history, I think that could still be the case. Imagine the narrative, Oxford v Lincoln in the final ‘third time lucky, but for who?’, with Appleton and Oxford losing twice together.
I’ll let that scenario play out in my head until Wednesday and go for a 1-0 victory for us. Your home form ain’t great, our away form is and personally, I fancy us more away than at the Bank these days.