Another playoff failure. Another game where we were incapable, for whatever reason, of maintaining a level of intensity and purpose for the entire ninety minutes, and the outcome was painfully familiar. A fourth successive season of League One football, of weekend non-glamour games and midweek grinds, lies in wait for 2021/2022.
After our automatic promotion challenge faded during the final weeks of the season we all hoped that maybe, just maybe, this was the time for us to prevail over three games of knockout football, but ultimately we are left to reflect on a game and season where we have fallen short in key areas.
To the list of players who have inflicted playoff agony upon Sunderland you can add the name of Tom Hopper, whose second-half header ultimately provided Lincoln with an advantage that they would never relinquish. Hopper now takes his place alongside the likes of Clive Mendonca, Sasa Ilic and Patrick Bauer as a player has helped to derail a Sunderland playoff campaign. Failure in this end-of-season shootout hangs like a millstone around the neck of our club, and we just seem incapable of changing it.
And yet, it all looked so different at half-time.
Simply put, we’d battered Lincoln for the majority of the first half, with Aiden McGeady playing like a man possessed and Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke (who should’ve scored two, having missed a glorious earlier chance after rounding Alex Palmer and fluffing his lines) grabbing the goals that levelled the tie on aggregate and had given us genuine hope.
We played a smart, intense game, and the 10,000 fans inside the SOL responded to the on-pitch action with the kind of raucous backing that has been sorely missed this season. The players rose to the challenge magnificently, and when the whistle blew for half-time, the mood was one of rampant optimism.
Sadly, it didn’t last.
As the second half began, so did Sunderland’s descent into the kind of turgid, hesitant football that has been one of our major weaknesses this season. In contrast, Lincoln began to play with greater freedom and positivity, and Hopper’s goal felt sickeningly inevitable. Indeed, the margin of defeat could’ve been even greater had Lee Burge not made a smart save from a Jorge Grant penalty following a clumsy challenge made by Josh Scowen.
Sunderland did have chances to regain a foothold, with McGeady hitting the post and Wyke missing the rebound, as well as Aiden O’Brien being thwarted by Palmer, but by that point belief had given way to forlorn hope at best, and the sight of Max Power launching a comically speculative effort from somewhere not far from Silksworth really did sum the entire sorry affair up.
So, where did it go wrong for Sunderland this season? As the old saying goes, stop ten people in the street and you’ll probably get a multitude of different answers.
We can look back to the decision to persist with Phil Parkinson at the start of the season, the dismal transfer business last summer, countless points dropped at the SOL against so-called lesser opposition, and perhaps even the emergence of ‘Streaky’ Lee Johnson, who has overseen a period of often erratic results since he was hired as manager.
All of these factors played a part, but in the cold light of day, there is no single defining reason for our failure.
The bigger picture is one of great intrigue and no small amount of urgency. New life has undoubtedly been breathed into the club with the arrival of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, but he and his people are facing a seismic summer as they attempt to tackle one of the biggest rebuilding jobs in the club’s recent history.
Fan patience, as we know, has often been in perilously short supply, and actions not words will be what the regime are defined by during the offseason.
The questions surrounding the club’s situation are many.
Fan discontent aside, there is no evidence to suggest that Lee Johnson won’t be in the dugout for the first game of next season, but what will the makeup of the team be when August rolls around?
With so many players out of contract and very few of them having made a strong case for renewal, there is no doubt that it is the end of the road for this incarnation of Sunderland AFC. They have had their chances to leave a legacy since joining, and sadly, have been found wanting too often.
I’ll try to end on a positive note.
Come August, eleven men will take to the field wearing the red and white stripes. Hopefully, they won’t be tainted by our recent failures and will be ready to launch a season-long promotion challenge. This is still your club, it’s still my club, and it’s still our club.
This disappointment, as raw as it is, won’t change that, and nor should it.