Wembley, here we come.
Another opportunity to break the curse that the national stadium holds for Sunderland. In the Papa John’s Trophy final, Tranmere will be our opponents, and we will have a chance to right the wrongs of 2019. Two years on, Sunderland have another chance to get our hands on a trophy, but boy, did we make hard work of it.
Pre-match, the question of how seriously Lee Johnson was treating this game, and how strong a team he would field was the major talking point. With a crucial league match against Burton pencilled in for Saturday, some would’ve argued that we needed to keep our frontline players fresh, and field some fringe players against Lincoln.
It was the age-old quandary: stick or twist; rotate or persist with your trusted team. Those who saw this game as an unwelcome distraction would doubtless have opted for the rotation option.
On the other hand, when you get to the semi-final stage of a knockout competition, regardless of how prestigious it might be, wasn’t it worth going ‘all-in’ and trying your best to win it? The chance to collect some silverware isn’t an opportunity we have been afforded very often, and maybe it would give the players a chance to discover a new winning mentality, and for their efforts in the competition to be rewarded.
In any event, Johnson did opt to tinker with his starting eleven, with Dan Neil given a starting berth, and the ever-versatile Luke O’Nien moved into defence. With Charlie Wyke leading the line, and some good options from the bench including Jordan Jones, it was clear that Lee Johnson was taking the game seriously, for which he deserves credit.
The first half was reasonably even, with neither side really able to assert any dominance, and the first real chance came when a dangerous cross from Anthony Scully was turned behind by O’Nien, and the resulting corner was headed over the bar by Lewis Montsma. Lincoln were playing with pace and verve, and Sunderland were somewhat ragged in comparison.
Lynden Gooch typified the team’s problems: receive the ball in a good area, and promptly lose possession. Later in the half, a good ball from Callum McFadzean was diverted behind for a corner which came to nothing, and it took until the 39th minute until the first shot on target was registered, when Aiden McGeady chanced his arm from the edge of the box, albeit to no avail.
Where was the impetus? Where was the desire? It was all too languid and lacking in spark. A hangover from Saturday’s demolition of Doncaster, perhaps? Whatever the reason, we needed a major boost in the second half.
The sight of Bailey Wright making way for Conor McLaughlin at the break was worrying, and the first chance of the second half fell to Lincoln, as a well-struck shot from Tom Hopper drew a smart save from Lee Burge, and a free kick from George Grant sailed harmlessly over the bar.
Our defence was now thoroughly makeshift, and Lincoln were ratcheting up the pressure. Lee Johnson responded by making a double, and rather bizarre substitution, switching Chris Maguire and Jack Diamond for Dan Neil and Josh Scowen, whilst leaving the flagging Grant Leadbitter on the field, but things were becoming increasingly nervy.
Eventually, the breakthrough came for Lincoln. A shot from Max Sanders was palmed into the path of Scully, who stabbed it home. It felt like an absolute inevitability, and frankly, Sunderland could’ve had few complaints. Yet again, we were letting a glorious chance slip through our fingers, to everyone’s frustration.
Eventually, and as he has done so often this season, Charlie Wyke bailed us out again, with a superb glancing header from a McGeady cross, that nestled into the corner of Alex Palmer’s goal.
The McGeady-Wyke axis had come up trumps again, and with fifteen minutes to play, it was anybody’s game, as Sunderland finally woke up and started to exert some sustained pressure of their own.
Ultimately, we couldn’t find the crucial second goal, and as injury time ticked away, it was time to start praying that this penalty shoot-out would have a different conclusion.
It did. Power, O’Nien, Maguire, McGeady and Leadbitter were the fab five. They held their nerve, and Lincoln’s Remy Howarth lost his. After being on the wrong end of these nerve-shredding shoot-outs so many times previously, we’d finally come out on the winning side.
A 5-3 victory, and a place in the final secured. Let’s finish the job against Tranmere, and get some long sought-after silverware into the cabinet. One more game to go, and we have to make the most of this chance. It’s back to the league now, but we can at least look ahead to a final and the chance to finally taste a Wembley victory.