Lee Johnson had asked Sunderland fans to serve as his team’s extra man by turning one of English football’s most atmospheric arenas into a cauldron and they did not disappoint.
It was not the supporters’ fault that Lincoln rather than Sunderland will contest the League One play-off final at Wembley against Blackpool next Sunday. Or that the Wearsiders are consigned to a fourth successive season in the third tier.
Johnson’s problem was that although Lincoln struggled to protect their 2-0 first leg lead, swiftly conceding two goals, Michael Appleton’s impressive young side held their nerve and when he was offered a chance to win the tie on aggregate, Tom Hopper took it.
In heading that decisive goal the forward transported a team in the National League four years ago to the possibility of playing of in the second tier; a level Lincoln last played at in 1961.
As mental and physical fatigue began derailing an initially omnipotent Sunderland, a couple of inspired substitutions and tactical tweaks from Appleton altered the power balance almost beyond recognition.
While man of the match Conor McGrandles changed the midfield landscape after coming on at the break, Liam Bridcutt began eclipsing Sunderland’s previously influential Grant Leadbitter.
“I got after them with a bit of old school at half-time,” said a delighted Appleton. “I didn’t recognise us in the first half. I was so disappointed but after that we showed our personality. My young players have passed a massive test.”
No matter that Covid-related restrictions dictated the Stadium of Light was only a fifth full. The 9,971 present made such a relentless, high-decibel racket that Lincoln were all but blown away in the first 45 minutes.
This was Aiden McGeady’s 36th game of the season and, under the terms of his contract, it should have automatically entitled the Ireland winger to a new one-year deal. Given that McGeady is the highest earner at the Stadium of Light, Sunderland’s owner – the watching Kyril Louis-Dreyfus – was reluctant to commit to that extension but will be relieved that the 35-year-old signed a waiver clause on Friday.
Rolling back the years in the 13th minute, McGeady skinned Regan Poole, Lincoln’s right-back, before supplying the onrushing Ross Stewart with a fabulous low cross. When Stewart lashed the ball home from six yards the decibel count rose to ear-splitting proportions.
The atmosphere was elemental and Limcoln struggled to weather a storm that kept them penned inside their own half, seemingly incapable of controlling the tempo.
The aggregate score would have been level had Charlie Wyke not been culpable of an almost inexplicable miss. Having done the hard work and rounded goalkeeper Alex Palmer, Sunderland’s leading scorer found himself confronting a gaping net about four yards out. But Wyke hesitated, buying the visitors time to scramble the ball off the line.
Happily for Wyke he did not freeze in the 33rd minute but atoned instead, volleying home from close range at the far post after another stellar low cross from McGeady. It was the winger’s 18th assist of a season when he did not play his first game until December.
As half-time approached Sunderland remained galvanised by the crowd, somehow maintaining a ferocious tempo. Lincoln looked suitably relieved to see McGeady direct a dipping 25-yard free-kick fractionally, tantalisingly, off target.
Lincoln can also take a mean dead ball and with Sunderland’s energy levels dropping appreciably, Poole headed Jorge Grant’s corner against the crossbar. Within minutes Hopper was left unmarked at another Grant corner and scored the decisive header.
All that remained was for Grant’s penalty to be saved by Lee Burge after Josh Scowen tripped McGrandles, McGeady to strike a post and a shattered-looking Johnson to punctuate his post-match sentences with the word “devastated”.