Sunderland looked certain to reach Wembley at half-time - what went wrong?
Saturday’s second leg tie was a complete rollercoaster of emotions. A tie that looked over in the first leg then looked certain to be reversed when the half-time whistle blew.
Sunderland seemed in dreamland, a roaring 10,000 crowd, two goals ahead, the tie was back level and only one team looked like winning. You had Wembley on your mind already, what will I need to book? Will I get a ticket?
The sad reality was that those thoughts were entirely premature. Sunderland did not turn up for the second half and found themselves back to square one after poor marking led to Lincoln scoring from a corner.
Lee Johnson’s men failed to respond and properly test Alex Palmer in the Lincoln net, bar McGeady hitting the post which was followed by a poor effort from Charlie Wyke, we never really put them under intense pressure.
Michael Appleton’s tactical changes at half-time changed the game in their favour and the introduction of Connor McGrandles caused Sunderland problems.
Johnson’s changes failed to change anything and in truth, none of them seemed capable of it. Max Power, Carl Winchester and Aiden O’Brien fail to excite anyone, plus the decision to bring on Jack Diamond over Jordan Jones was simply baffling. Tom Flanagan entering the field late on was pure desperation.
Power’s 93rd minute attempt to replicate Jonny Wilkinson planted a nail in the coffin and symbolised how Sunderland’s season had come to an anti-climatic conclusion.
A team who once had the league title in their own hands ended up falling short once again, for the third season running.
Sunderland may have won the match, but overall this group of players have failed to create a winning mentality and many of them have played a part in the club consistently falling short in the past few seasons.
Lee Johnson has made some questionable decisions of late, but poor recruitment and a horrific defensive injury crisis cannot be forgotten.
Lee Johnson’s tenure at Sunderland has certainly been up and down, as the “Streaky Lee” nickname has now been vindicated.
Sunderland have gone from cup winners who looked certain to go up, to a team on relegation form who cannot stop conceding goals.
Having said that, despite some calls for his head on social media, two very important factors that have to be considered are recruitment and Sunderland’s horrific defensive injury list.
Lee Johnson walked into a team who had recruited dreadfully, you could go as far as to argue it was the worst summer window in the club’s history.
Aiden O’Brien scored four league goals, whilst Danny Graham failed to score in League One before retiring. Remi Matthews has constantly dropped clangers, Morgan Feeney left the club without playing a league match and Callum McFadzean has been out of his depth.
Excluding re-signing Bailey Wright and the enigma that is Arby Xhemajli, it was an absolutely shocking period of recruitment and weakened last year’s squad.
Moving onto injuries, Sunderland’s starting defence yesterday had two (arguably three as McFadzean is a wing-back/left-midfielder) midfielders in it.
Johnson has spent most of his time in charge with Sunderland’s best defenders injured in Jordan Willis, Bailey Wright and Denver Hume.
Dion Sanderson’s injury has had a highly negative effect, whilst the likes of Tom Flanagan and Conor McLaughlin have been in and out of the team with injury throughout the season.
The ex-Bristol City boss has had to play Luke O’Nien, Max Power and Lynden Gooch out of position in defence, which is a mixture of poor injury luck and poor recruitment.
The decision to take the cheap option in McFadzean over the likes of Demetri Mitchell and Jordan Obita has proved costly for Sunderland.
You can question the manager for his tactical setup and substitutions, but you have to acknowledge how poor a hand he has been dealt with injuries and previous poor recruitment.
He deserves a full pre-season and summer transfer window before he is properly judged.
Sunderland have over 10 players out of contract - does Lee Johnson need to completely overhaul the squad?
It is no secret that Sunderland have many players out of contract and the deadline to release our retained list is the 26th May - should the club have a clear out?
Players such as Max Power have been part of Sunderland sides who have all failed to achieve promotion, if the club are to have a real clean slate under a new regime, I believe they have to be ruthless and cut ties with the majority who are out of contract.
Kristjaan Speakman and the club’s staff need a clear blueprint of which formations the club will play and what style of play, so they can specifically recruit individuals who fit that mould.
Sunderland need to stop recruiting names and instead use data analytics combined with traditional scouting to find players who fit our system and will excel in our team.
Too many times the club have signed big names on big money who have been released and who do not fit the style of the team.
Key weaknesses in the side include a lack of pace and a lack of height, the team needs dynamic players who can press and beat players, people who fit how Johnson wants to play.
The likes of Denver Hume and Luke O’Nien fit that mould and fans will be desperate to see those two sign new deals.
Others such as Remi Matthews, Conor McLaughlin, Callum McFadzean, Chris Maguire, Max Power and Grant Leadbitter all seem likely to be released.
The biggest decisions will come with Aiden McGeady and Charlie Wyke, as either may leave by their own choice to pursue other options.
Whatever happens, it is certain that there will be drastic changes on Wearside this summer and our recruitment is absolutely imperative if the team are to challenge for promotion next season.