With a two-goal deficit to overcome, Lee Johnson made four changes from the team that lost 2-0 at Sincil Bank on Wednesday evening. Most notably, there were only two natural defenders fielded from the start, with Luke O’Nien partnering Bailey Wright, and Lynden Gooch filling in at right-back, with Callum McFadzean replacing Denver Hume. Chris Maguire was given a start in midfield, with Ross Stewart partnering Charlie Wyke. In midfield, Grant Leadbitter came into the centre, with Max Power dropping to the bench.
First Half Action
From the smell of the burger vans outside of the stadium to the hustle and bustle before the game, it was clear that there was a big game on at the Stadium of Light, with the 10,000 fans keen to play their role in what could have been one of the biggest play-off turnarounds.
Lee Johnson was keen for the fans to play their part and become a “cauldron of noise”, and from the moment when the players stepped out for their pre-match training, they would play their part in an outstanding opening 45, where Sunderland took control.
Both Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke linked up well in attack, and after overcoming his pre-match contract situation, Aiden McGeady proved to be instrumental in Sunderland’s attacks.
When he picked up the ball on the halfway line and drove at Regan Poole, it felt inevitable that we’d score. This time, it wasn’t Charlie Wyke who met his teasing cross, but Ross Stewart, who poked the ball past Alex Palmer - giving Sunderland hope.
Even then, Lee Johnson’s men looked like they had more in the tank, with Callum McFadzean drifting into a forward position, and firing wide from Wyke’s knock-down.
Another chance fell the way of the Black Cats only moments later, but this felt like it could have been a turning point in the tie.
Lincoln’s approach was caught out, as Lewis Montsma was unable to clear his lines, with a deflection dropping to Charlie Wyke. He calmly rolled the ball around the goalkeeper, and with Maguire for support, he could only play it against TJ Eyoma, with the important second goal within touching distance.
There was a clear emotion of deflation from Wyke on his face, but the 10,000 support responded by chanting his name and trying to keep up the tempo as the second goal felt like it had been thrown out of the window.
But, no, as McGeady produced yet another piece of quality - his trademark piece of skill enabled him to whip the ball into the penalty area for Wyke to prod powerfully past Palmer, who could only flap and push it into his own net.
With half time approaching, Lincoln began to sneak their way back into proceedings, but Alex Palmer may have found himself lucky, as the referee Michael Salisbury didn’t point to the spot for a challenge that caused a reaction from the fans in the stadium.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 2(2)-(2)0 Lincoln City
Second Half Action
The Black Cats knew they had to keep up the tempo for another 45 minutes and they would have been in the League One play-off final, but a half-time double change from Michael Appleton made a colossal impact.
Joe Walsh and midfielder Conor McGrandles were introduced; the latter making the most impact to swerve the game into the Imps’ favour.
A clear step-up in tempo from the visitors put Sunderland onto the back-foot, as they began to recreate some of their play from Wednesday’s first leg, with Lee Johnson’s side struggling to find a way out of their own half.
They found more and more space on the right wing, with Brennan Johnson causing Sunderland, and more specifically Callum McFadzean, problems, as they dominated possession within the final third.
There was an air of deflation around the Stadium of Light, with the Imps taking the sting out of the air, and looking increasing likely to score the fifth goal and the most significant.
The warning signs came only seven minutes after the interval, as Regan Poole’s header bounced back against the ground and struck the crossbar.
Sunderland didn’t learn from their errors, as another set-piece proved decisive in the play-off tie, as it switched the dynamic of the tie.
Jorge Grant’s corner from the left was met by the head of Tom Hopper, who peeled away from Charlie Wyke, to nod the ball into the bottom right corner.
Sunderland struggled to recreate any form or momentum that was clear in the first period, as Lincoln were gifted with a clear path to Wembley next Sunday.
A clumsy challenge from Josh Scowen inside of the penalty area on Conor McGrandles was deemed a penalty by the referee, but Grant’s penalty was met by the fists of Lee Burge to give Sunderland a lifeline.
From there, the support from the stands altered as the 10,000 began to recreate some of the noise that helped to push the Black Cats in the first half, but as more bodies were plunged forward, there was more space for Lincoln to work with, and they should have been level on the day and their aggregate lead increased.
Tom Hopper’s knock-on to McGrandles enabled him to have some space in behind the defensive structure, but after shifted the ball onto his left foot, he powered his effort over the crossbar.
Sunderland did have chances in the final period of the game, but none came more closer to Aiden McGeady’s with less than 10 minutes to go, as his effort was drilled against the left post, and the rebound being struck against the side-netting by Wyke.
The Black Cats were wasteful in their possession in the final third, as Lincoln weren’t really troubled as much as they were within the opening 45, with Aiden O’Brien’s effort drawing a save from Alex Palmer from inside of the penalty area.
As the clock ticked down, Sunderland became aimless with their possession, and Max Power’s useless shot in the 93rd minute condemned us to yet another season in League One, and the only volume at the final whistle was Lincoln cheers.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 2(2)-(3)1 Lincoln City
It is remarkable how a 90-minute spell of football can signify a full campaign of highs and lows, but Sunderland’s 2-1 victory over Lincoln portrayed just that.
Defensive issues, shambolic refereeing and a failure to capitalise on opportunities are just some of the things shown during Saturday’s victory, but an overall loss on aggregate.
When the Black Cats put themselves into an ideal position at half time, a 15 minute collapse of momentum and pressure ultimately proved decisive in who would play Blackpool next week at Wembley.
It is a shame that we weren’t able to push on and claim the goal that may have put us into the play-off final, especially when we had that place within touching distance.
On numerous occasions during the second half Sunderland were caught out on Lincoln’s right, as time and time again, Brennan Johnson and Jorge Grant found space away from Callum McFadzean and Chris Maguire.
Another error from a set piece proved to be the final nail in the coffin, with the experienced Tom Hopper somehow winning a free header, giving Lincoln their route to Wembley next Sunday.
If both Blackpool and Lincoln play at their best it could potentially be an encaptivating play-off final, but for once Sunderland will just have to watch and see what other side will be battling with them next season.
In truth, the damage was already completed on Wednesday, with a performance that was nowhere near good enough costing the Black Cats two goals and giving them a huge mountain to climb in the second leg.
Lincoln’s two-goal advantage was abolished within a first-half performance where Lincoln proved to be taken aback by Sunderland’s attacking and high-tempo performance.
It proved to be one of the best first half displays of the season, close to the one at Fratton Park against a low-on-confidence Portsmouth side.
It was the first 15-20 minutes of the second half that proved costly, with a combination of an impressive half-time double substitution and Michael Appleton’s more attacking and fearless and youthful approach resulting in Sunderland restoring back to their shaky persona, and losing the semi-final.
In truth, errors made across the last two months have proven to be costly for the Black Cats, with a massive summer on the cards - one of the most significant since Sunderland’s drop down into the third tier.
A reset is required, and is no doubt on the way with a large proportion of the team out of contract in the summer and many have made their final stand for the club.
Kyril Louis-Dreyfus and Lee Johnson will no doubt work very closely and the summer break will do the team the world of good, because with the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham dropping down into League One, and Portsmouth, Ipswich and Charlton still fighting to get out, it will be the toughest season of Sunderland’s history.
With new owners and new investment, a fifth consecutive season in League One would be completely unacceptable for this proud club, so therefore those in charge must work harder to ensure the League One play-offs aren’t our destiny again.
So, the rebuilding process starts now.