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Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One

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Fan Focus: Lincoln fan Gary is backing his side to beat Sunderland 2-1 at Sincil Bank!

Ahead of Sunderland’s first playoff leg against Lincoln, we spoke to Lincoln fan and writer Gary Hutchinson of The Stacey West fansite. We discussed their end to the League One season, Michael Appleton, as well as their players returning from injury. What do you the final score will be on Wednesday night?

Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

Matthew Crichton: Given that Lincoln spent a large proportion of the season in the automatic promotion spots, are you disappointed that that the team finished in the playoffs, or is that still a fantastic achievement?

Gary Hutchinson: There is no disappointment at all. Michael Appleton had two choices this season in terms of the squad – quality or quantity. He opted for quality and because of that, we did really well, but suffered when injuries hit hard. If he’d opted for quantity, we would have just been a Fleetwood or Doncaster, marooned in no-man’s land.

At the beginning of the season, any self-respecting Lincoln City fan would have taken tenth as huge progress, so fifth can only been seen as a great outcome. Of course, it is disappointing to know we fell away, but it is my firm belief had we had our full squad available for 46 games, we would have won the league.

At one point, I think we had eight players out, including the captain, vice-captain, leading scorer, number nine and best central defender. Throw in several players who didn’t properly recover from Covid and the fact we didn’t collapse completely is a massive achievement.

MC: Sunderland and Lincoln finished level on 77 points, do you think given Sunderland’s horrendous recent form your team ended up with the best choice of opponent?

GH: Not really, form does go out of the window a bit. The only form table I pay any attention to is the 46-game form table, and you did alright in that. What I do think is we’re the best version of ourselves right now, a fully fit squad for the first time this season, and as I understand it you still have a few out.

If you’d asked me which team I’d rather face I’d have gone for Oxford, because they qualified through others being bad (Pompey, Doncaster, etc), then you because of the injury situation. I do think that we are in a better place than any of our other meetings with you though, but it means nothing in these one-off matches.

MC: Having said that, Lincoln ended the season poorly and bottled a three goal lead against Peterborough to end your chances of automatic promotion - do you think that result has deflated the squad?

GH: I wouldn’t say bottled, I’d say utterly robbed of a three-goal lead. We led that game 3-0, took off Liam Bridcutt as we eased him back to fitness and immediately conceded. Tom Hopper missed a sitter to make it 4-1 and a deflected free kick gave Posh a lifeline, but their final goal was an utter disgrace.

Go on, YouTube it, then come back and say we bottled it. We were cheated out of a 3-2 win at Posh and whilst it would have made little difference overall, it was an abhorrent decision. What it did do was allow us to coast the last two games, resting players, making changes and nursing some back to fitness. It was the best thing that could have happened and if anything, the injustice leaves us feeling more focused, not deflated.

Shrewsbury Town v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One
Michael Appleton was linked with managing Sunderland before the club appointed Jack Ross in 2018.
Photo by James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

MC: In February Lincoln boss Michael Appleton signed a new four-year contract to stay with the club, does that ease your worries of losing him to linked Championship teams?

GH: Nope, not really, contracts only ensure a fair price if they leave. I don’t think Michael will leave, he’s been burned job-hopping before and he seems ultra-committed to the cause. The reality is that if a West Brom were to come in for him, few could begrudge him the move.

He’s been superb for us and whatever the future holds, he deserves it. I’ll always be worried he’ll leave, but I’m a pessimist. I think if we go up, he stays, if we stay in League One he might be tempted, but the club would get a good seven figures for his services and we’d have to move on.

MC: Lincoln top scorer Jorge Grant has returned from injury recently, how important is he to your chances of achieving promotion?

GH: Massive, as is Liam Bridcutt, Joe Walsh and Tom Hopper, all out for a while too. Grant is a creative force, a player with slick skills, a creative eye but also a competitive edge. No single player makes a team, but with Grant and Bridcutt in the midfield we have the perfect combination. We missed them hugely, both were out from February through until late April, coinciding with our tough run.

Lincoln City v AFC Wimbledon - Sky Bet League One
Liam Bridcutt was signed for Sunderland by Gus Poyet during our last Premier League tenure.
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

MC: Former Sunderland midfielder Liam Bridcutt is fit to play after an injury plagued season, does he provide the control and protection in midfield which pushes Lincoln up a gear?

GH: Bridcutt is the pivot around which the whole team manoeuvres. Yes, he protects the back four, but he also helps with transition from back to front. To term an Alan Partridge phrase, he is a liquid footballer, and by that I mean he naturally falls into gaps whenever they appear.

If our full backs get forward and the opposition launch a counter, he has oozed into the gaps to provide cover. He’s all-action too, his one pace is ‘full throttle’ when he’s off the ball and he is only ever a tackle away from a booking. For me, he is our most important player, because he does so much and makes the game easier for the talented young players around him.

MC: Out wide, Appleton’s side possess two players with excellent pace in Brennan Johnson and Morgan Rogers, have those two signings proved just how effective the youth loan market can be for lower league clubs?

GH: Yes, without a doubt. Both have chipped in with goals and assists and when they’re on form, they are as good as anyone in this division. Johnson will go to the Euros with Wales, which is massive for a club like us, and Rogers is a maverick, capable of absolute wizardry on his day. Both have improved over the course of the season too – youth loans are a two-way street and clubs want to see their players develop.

Next season, any top flight club wanting their 19-year-old prodigy to get game time are bound to look at us, see the progress Johnson and Rogers have made, as well as TJ Eyoma and even Joe Morrell last year, and know we’re a good place to send those players.

Lincoln City v Milton Keynes Dons - Sky Bet League One
Brennan Johnson has scored 12 goals in all competitions for Lincoln this season.
Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

MC: Sunderland and Lincoln have both endured horrendous levels of injuries throughout this season, do you ever miss the old system of emergency loan windows which would have allowed both teams to cover problematic positions?

GH: Not really, but I saw the other side of it. Too many loan players can damage a team’s morale and we saw this season a hugely talented young player, Robbie Gotts, suffer because there wasn’t space for him. I don’t believe a player is helped by being farmed out on an emergency loan and then shipped back after a few weeks, it benefits nobody.

What should have happened was a longer season and fewer midweek matches. We could have easily had two extra weeks, single leg play offs with third and fourth getting home advantage and eased the burden on players. This season, the scheduling led to injuries in my opinion and the emergency loan market, like the five subs rule, would only have painted over the mistake made by the authorities.

MC: Who are the eleven Lincoln players you believe Appleton will select and what style of play can Lee Johnson’s men expect to encounter?

GH: Palmer, Poole, Edun, Walsh, Montsma, Bridcutt, Grant, McGrandles, Rogers, Johnson and Hopper. We’ll be the same as we have been all season, a variant of 4-3-3 (might be 4-2-3-1, 4-1-3-2, 4-1-4-1) and looking to break quickly when the chance arises with lots of passing and possession. We will stick to our game plan too, there will be no change mid-fixture.

MC: Lincoln have failed to beat Sunderland in three meetings this season, what is your honest prediction of the first leg final score?

GH: I think Lincoln can win, but it’s too close to call. Aside from the 4-0 I thought we could have pinched a win in both our 1-1 draws and I don’t think there is a lot between the clubs. It depends who is fitter on the day, more focused and who gets that little bit of luck. I’m going to go for a 2-1 Lincoln win going into the second leg.


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