Phil Smith's verdict: Inside a special but bittersweet night for Sunderland that could be key to Lee Johnson's project

When Anthony Scully rifled his effort into the roof of the net, you couldn’t help but feel the game might be nearly up.

Thursday, 18th February 2021, 6:00 am

Sunderland had lost Bailey Wright to a calf injury at the break and it left them without a recognised centre-half on the pitch.

Lincoln had been growing into the second half and the Black Cats looked increasingly vulnerable.

Lee Johnson had noted the danger and tried to intervene with a double substitution minutes earlier, bringing on Chris Maguire and Jack Diamond in an attempt to reverse the flow of the game.

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Sunderland celebrate their penalty shootout win

The celebrations in the corner as Scully wheeled away were some of the most vocal at the Stadium of Light this season and it felt like a fair reflection of the significance of the moment.

So that Sunderland found a way through felt in some ways like the biggest moment of Lee Johnson’s tenure so far.

They had dominated Doncaster Rovers on Saturday, a performance of energy and quality that pointed to the long-term vision Johnson is looking to implement.

He had spoken afterwards of his pride but it had come with a clear warning.

Even in these nascent stages of his tenure he had noted Sunderland’s strange capacity for ‘self-sabotage’, how good performances and what feel like statement results are so often followed up with disappointment.

After Scully’s goal it felt like this contest was going exactly in that direction.

Those substitutions began to make an impact, though.

Johnson has said in just about every press conference since taking charge that the size of his squad will be crucial over the course of the campaign and this typified it. Maguire has barely had a kick so far this year but alongside Diamond, he brought an energy and a lift that was needed.

Michael Appleton had only been able to name five substitutions and the difference was becoming clearer as Sunderland came alive.

Johnson’s changes were working, Max Power and Aiden McGeady both drifting infield as the Black Cats began to dominate the ball.

Charlie Wyke twice forced good saves from Alex Palmer as Sunderland began to turn the screw and when the goal came, it was a superb header from the in-form striker.

There may have been some frustration that it had taken a Lincoln goal for Sunderland to remove the shackles, but that would also do something of a disservice to the quality with which Appleton’s side had started the game.

The Black Cats did seem to be dropping off more than they had done in their emphatic win on Saturday, happy for Lincoln to play out into midfield virtually unopposed.

Part of that, though, reflected the fact that right from the off the visitors had shown bravery and speed in possession that could open up a defence missing some of its key figures.

To Johnson’s credit, as he would in the second half, he switched things up with half an hour on the clock and got a response.

Sunderland were in the ascendancy when the half-time whistle was blown and by this point, it felt like a tense game between two well-matched sides.

Speaking afterwards, Johnson said that he felt both looked tired and that was a view reinforced by Appleton.

Without doubt, both were clearly wary of the threat posed by their opponent on the counter-attack and so it was little surprise that we had reached something of a stalemate.

Wright’s injury at the break felt like it could be a turning point and to come through it felt like a significant moment.

Though there were one or two moments where he was caught out, Luke O’Nien produced a spirited performance and in one of the moments where he erred late on, Max Power was there to cover with an outstanding challenge.

Conor McLaughlin produced a similarly tenacious display to help his side secure a penalty shootout.

“It can be a boost, it can make people believe and see that we have a team that will fight, and we have got that,” Johnson said afterwards.

“It’s a tough end to the season with the number of games and we will have to be clever with our team selections, but also making sure the boys recover because we want to win them all – and we know we can win any game in this division, I think we’ve proved that.”

“It’s very nice because when you get a game like that it builds belief in what you are trying to do, the philosophy, and the players get that reward at the end of it – they get that carrot of a really big occasion,” he added.

“Unfortunately, it will be without fans but we know that we will have the whole of Sunderland and the surrounding areas right behind us.”

The conclusion was perfect, Grant Leadbitter utterly nerveless as he dispatched the winning penalty.

Yet the strangeness of these times was summed up in the wait for the wall of noise that never arrived.

This was the most bittersweet of wins, securing a Wembley final at which fans will not be present.

The memories of Trafalgar Square and that spine-tingling rendition of ‘Wise Men Say’ are precious even when set against the defeat that followed, and it is hard to truly celebrate an occasion at which there will be none of that.

It will be, as Johnson said, ‘nothing’ without the fans.

Even so, this has been the most testing of years, and there was something to relish in the unity and excitement that Leadbitter strike unleashed.

Just for a moment, it feels like Sunderland might be moving towards something.

If a Wembley final can help build that spirit, it’ll be a worthwhile occasion even behind closed doors.

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