In the day before last night’s game, Blackpool’s tremendous run of form continued as they thumped Oxford United 3-0 in their own back yard - virtually cementing a place under the famous Wembley arch for The Tangerines.
However, for Sunderland the focus was entirely on their own game.
Only to add to the tension perhaps, the game featured home supporters for the first time in what feels like forever. Sunderland knew that if we could return to the Stadium Of Light for the second leg with an advantage, then the atmosphere would most certainly be electric.
It goes without saying that we entered the play-offs short of confidence. Recent results have not been acceptable as we failed to gain promotion automatically, with Hull City and Peterborough United occupying the top spots. All hope was not lost though as the lads’ had already been successful once at Wembley this season, beating Tranmere Rovers in the final of the Papa John’s Trophy. Inevitably, these games would be much more important.
There was a major blow for Lincoln City just twenty-four hours before kick-off when the FA’s concussion protocols meant that first team goalkeeper Alex Palmer was unavailable for selection. However, they acted immediately by completing the loan signing of emergency goalkeeper Josef Bursik, who also featured for Peterborough during the latter stages of the season.
Michael Appleton named his starting eleven, which saw former Sunderland midfielder Liam Bridcutt return to face his former club. Attacking midfielder Brennan Johnson also started. He has been immense for Lincoln this season, with the talented youngster currently on loan from Championship outfit Nottingham Forrest. As for attack, former Leicester City forward Tom Hopper would lead the line, having scored eight league goals this season.
As for the team news from a Sunderland perspective, Lee Johnson made two adjustments from the side that failed to beat Northampton Town on the final day of the season. One of these changes saw Tom Flanagan return to the line-up after a lengthy absence due to Injury. The other change meant that star man Aiden McGeady was back in the side, with Conor McLaughlin making way. There would be huge pressure on the shoulders of Charlie Wyke to put in another brilliant performance, as he has scored so many vital goals for us across the duration of the season.
The nerves were certainly starting to kick in as the players made their way onto the field. It was a great opportunity for this group of lads’ to prove their worth to the Sunderland supporters, who watched on apprehensively from their front rooms.
It was the hosts who started the game promisingly, showing positive signs when Scully’s effort was tipped over by Lee Burge in the opening five minutes of play.
Unfortunately, injury problems continued for us when Denver Hume was forced off for Callum McFadzean in the early stages of the first half. Lincoln continued to search for the opening goal when the ball fell to Montsma on the edge of the box, who volleyed through a crowd of players but only for Lee Burge to collect. The pressure mounted when Brennan Johnson struck the post with a low shot from outside of the box. That was all the action in store for the first half, with Lincoln City creating the best chances on goal.
Sunderland started the second half off well when Jordan Jones’ long-range effort was tipped onto the bar by Bursik. The subsequent corner also struck the bar, when Bailey Wright failed to convert his header. Despite this, it was the hosts that opened the scoring.
Grant’s miscued shot somehow found Tom Hopper, who fired his effort passed a helpless Lee Burge to make it 1-0. At the opposite end, Bursik produced a tremendous save to deny a clever effort from Aiden McGeady to keep Lincoln ahead. Not long after, Johnson doubled their advantage. Catastrophe struck when Lee Burge’s attempted clearance deflected off Johnson, leaving him with an empty net to pass the ball into. That was all the action from the first leg, with the lads’ stumbling to a disastrous 2-0 defeat when it mattered most.
Inevitably, this result will probably be fatal ahead of the second leg on Saturday. You would expect Lincoln City to defend from the front in the second leg as even a draw would see them through to the final.
Seemingly, none of our players have the ability to excel under pressure as we have crumbled in the games that were the most pivotal on numerous occasions. Should we remain in League One, it would surely be sensible to allow the contracts of several first-team players to expire as they are simply not good enough to play in a team with the sole ambition of gaining promotion.
The managerial front is quickly becoming another topic of debate on Wearside - are you Johnson in or Johnson out?