Phil Smith's verdict: Inside the woeful night that leaves Sunderland squad facing their last stand

There was a moment in the second half where you just thought: Ah, one of those nights.

Thursday, 20th May 2021, 12:00 pm


In the play-offs (as in any game) you need to execute in both boxes and along the way, you need a little bit of luck.

It felt increasingly as if Sunderland would be found wanting on both fronts.

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Sunderland are 2-0 down after the first leg at Lincoln City

They had survived a listless opening half an hour, where Lincoln City ought to have taken the lead.

When they finally began to play themselves into the game, they were denied by a combination of poor finishing and inevitably, a superb display from Josef Bursik.

The emergency loanee produced a quite brilliant save to deny Jordan Jones, turning one of those shots that looked destined for the top corner right until the very last second onto the bar.

From the corner, Bailey Wright found space and thumped his header off the woodwork once again.

Within moments, Sunderland were behind, poor defending meaning that an excellent save from Lee Burge went to waste.

One of those nights.

And then.

An extraordinary gift for Lincoln City, the kind of goal that can leave a deep scar on a club if it proves to be crucial in the final count.

Countless opportunities to clear the lines missed, an aimless punt from deep in the opposition half somehow turned into a goal.

It added to the strange dynamic of the game. Sunderland's collapse came when they were arguably at their strongest, undone by the kind of defensive lapses that have seen their surge for the top two fizzle out in alarming fashion.

From there on in it was too often long balls and crosses into the box from deep, too comfortable for a Lincoln side who had looked uncertain not so long earlier.

There again was a theme that has been too common of late.

Defensive injuries have been a key part of Sunderland's campaign, the latter stages at least, and here again it was at the heart of this dismal night in Lincoln.

If Lee Johnson had been unsure about whether to gamble on handing Tom Flanagan his first start since the Papa John's Trophy final, then another serious injury for Conor McLaughlin in the build-up forced his hand.

Within ten minutes, he was forced to reshuffle yet again.

Sunderland had looked woefully exposed down their left early on, Anthony Scully finding far too much space from which to drive towards goal.

Denver Hume was clearly far from comfortable, and was withdrawn clutching his hamstring.

All across the pitch, though, Sunderland looked uneasy through the opening half an hour. Johnson had long insisted that they would fly out of the traps when the play-offs came around but to say that did not materialise would be an understatement.

That Lincoln would start with a spring in their step was inevitable.

After 15 months away their home support took the opportunity to return with gusto, creating a genuine atmosphere that lifted their side.

If it was understandable that Sunderland might want to try and take the sting out of the occasion, to control possession and settle, then the reality was that too often they handed the initiative to their opponents.

Though they saw plenty of the ball, too often the movement was poor and there were multiple opportunities for Lincoln to break into space as possession was turned over.

There was not enough fluidity or bravery in possession, Johnson urging his side to produce more from the dugout.

If Sunderland fairly felt that they were unfortunate not to get on the scoresheet in the second half, then they were equally fortunate to survive this spell without falling behind.

The end result was Sunderland left facing a mountain to climb; a squad with 90 minutes to prevent their story concluding with the most underwhelming of endings.

A significant summer overhaul is inevitable and for many who seem likely to move on, this play-off campaign is the opportunity to define their legacy at the club.

To be part of the squad who hauled themselves over the line at the third time of asking, or feel short at the crucial moment once again.

For Johnson, too, there is a significant challenge in finding the right balance in his side where again here they were unable to produce over 90 minutes.

Grant Leadbitter's composure was badly missed in the first half, and while Ross Stewart's introduction for a time did help his side, it seems inconceivable that Sunderland could fall out the play-offs without turning at least once to Chris Maguire.

Though the mood right now is understandably flat, this tie is far from over.

Sunderland showed here that they have the attacking capability to hurt Lincoln City, should their key players find the composure that so disappointingly alluded them here.

The return of 10,000 fans will also add a different dynamic to a ground where the Black Cats have so often laboured this season. One goal for Johnson's side and the atmosphere will be electric.

At full time here the mood was understandably buoyant, but Lincoln City's celebrations strayed dangerously close to giving the impression that their passage to Wembley was secure.

As Sunderland trudged towards their makeshift shower block, the reception from the home support is one that you hope will linger.

If they need a siege mentality to spark their performance on Saturday, they will not have to look far.

Johnson has called for a cauldron at the Stadium of Light and make no mistake, he will get it. From there, Sunderland's fans are owed a performance.

For much of this squad, it could be their last stand in a red-and-white shirt.

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