Phil Smith's verdict: Why the reaction to a frustrating afternoon told you everything about the quiet resolve at Sunderland

1-1 may be familiar terrain for Sunderland but the reaction to this particular result tells you much.

Sunday, 21st March 2021, 12:30 pm

The pervading feeling on Wearside is one of calm, and that speaks volumes to the progress Lee Johnson and his side have made in recent weeks.

This was a frustrating afternoon, for sure, but there was no sense of recrimination.

In the closing moments, across front rooms and high up in the Stadium of Light, there was a brief crackling of anticipation.

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Callum McFadzean celebrates his first-half goal
Callum McFadzean celebrates his first-half goal

A goal for Rochdale against Peterborough United, and the prospect of a climb into the top two if only Sunderland could find a goal.

A brief look to the pitch quickly told you that on this occasion, this was a bridge too far.

Sunderland looked leggy and were struggling to build any sustained spell of pressure.

If any side looked likely to find a winner, then the two excellent saves from Lee Burge that followed Callum Morton’s equaliser told you that it was probably Lincoln City.

The decibel level in the home dugout during those tense, often frenetic final 15 minutes had gone up considerably. Johnson recognised that his side had lost the discipline in their performance, lacking the ‘zip’ that has defined so many of their performances in this unbeaten run.

Fatigue was an obvious factor, a punishing schedule and the emotional intensity of the last fortnight evidently beginning to catch up with Sunderland.

Part of it, Johnson also felt, was simply testament to a very good Lincoln side.

Their form coming into this contest had been poor but afterwards Sunderland’s Head Coach was clear that they could not be ruled out of the automatic promotion race.

Michael Appleton’s side were quick, agile and a constant threat on the counter.

Morton’s goal was well taken and in Brennan Johnson and Morgan Rogers, this trio of loanees ran and ran at the Black Cats.

In the closing minutes Sunderland looked uncertain, eager to find a winner but conscious too that they were struggling to contain the visitors on the break.

There had been nothing between the two sides when they had met in the Papa John’s Trophy semi final a month ago and so it was again here.

The half-time lead for Johnson’s side was just about deserved.

Regan Poole ought to have done better when capitalising on a defensive lapse, but for the most part it was the Black Cats who forged the better of the openings through the first 45.

Max Power had almost teed up Aiden McGeady for a fine goal just moments before Callum McFadzean headed his side into the lead, and while Lincoln threatened on occasions they were ultimately kept at arm’s length.

Just as they had done a month ago, their game was built on quickly moving the ball through the lines and the search for an early switch to the flanks, where they have pace in abundance.

The home side were equal to the challenge, Conor McLaughlin particularly impressive as he stepped in to break up play down his flank.

Lincoln’s response was excellent and that cohesion Sunderland had played with in the first half just began to fray at the edges.

Johnson has had something of a midas touch in recent weeks but here he found himself just unable to alter the flow of the game.

Carl Winchester had been pushed into an advanced role and while his pressing was energetic, Sunderland missed his poise in midfield.

Replaced by Josh Scowen in the aftermath of Morton’s goal, the Black Cats found themselves high on industry but short on composure.

Both Ross Stewart and in particular Chris Maguire brought some presence as that initial surge of Lincoln pressure eased, but there could be no disputing that the visitors were good value for their point.

The disappointment was palpable but so too was the resolve.

This is a good Lincoln side and the draw keeps them at arm’s length for the time being.

It may have been an opportunity missed for Sunderland, but that feeling is likely to be far more acute for Peterborough United and Hull City, who both dropped two points at opponents near the bottom of the table.

Remarkably, the Black Cats now have no midweek fixture for the first time this year and for the first time since they returned from their enforced COVID-19 break.

Johnson has the chance both to give his players some overdue rest, and also to enjoy the kind of training-ground time that has eluded him of late, when the focus has necessarily been recovery and pre-match preparation.

For players, staff and supporters, this represents the last chance to pause and take breath before what is set to be a relentless run-in.

With the top two still to play, Johnson knows there are more of these tense, demanding afternoons ahead.

It has been a superb month for the Black Cats, and the calm that most are feeling is a reflection of the trust earned in this run of excellent form.

Sunderland’s margin for error between now and the campaign is wafer-thin, but 23 points from the last 27 (and a win at Wembley, too) means that there remains a quiet confidence on Wearside.

The challenge now is to quickly turn this point into a good one, just as they did after that quite remarkable escape at Crewe Alexandra.

So a familiar result, perhaps, but the mood around this club is very different these days.

Johnson and his players are quite determined to keep it that way.

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