Sunderland suffer yet more play-off heartbreak as Lincoln City edge through a dramatic second leg contest
Sunderland suffered yet more play-off heartbreak as Lincoln City fought back from a first-half siege to seal their place at Wembley.
A raucous home crowd roared their side on in a superb first-half, goals from Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke restoring parity.
The visitors at that stage were on the ropes, but produced a solid second-half display and sealed their win through a Tom Hopper header.
They could have extended their lead when Jorge Grant missed a penalty, and though Sunderland threw bodies forward, they did not create enough.
It was another brutal end to the campaign for supporters, who are now facing a fourth season in League One.
Lee Johnson had called for his team to be bold, and for the support to create a cauldron of noise.
He played his part in the early siege with an aggressive team selection, Ross Stewart and Chris Maguire restored to the XI as Lydnen Gooch dropped into right back.
It looked adventurous, perhaps too much so, but it matched the mood inside a ferocious Stadium of Light.
10,000 felt like 50,000, right from the moment the players came out for their pre-match warm up.
In the opening exchanges it was all Sunderland, Wyke and Stewart battling well for long balls but just as importantly, pressurising Lincoln’s defence with their pressing.
Time and time again they won possession back, or forced the visitors into feeding the ball back to their opponents.
If there were no real early chances, then the pattern of play meant it felt inevitable and perhaps unsurprisingly, it was McGeady who carved the open contest. He was near his own halfway line when he picked up possession, but fearing that he would cut inside, Lincoln simply sat off as he drove deeper and deeper. The low cross the front post was excellent, and Stewart darted across his marker to turn home.
The pressure was relentless, McFadzean turning a low effort wide as he burst into the box to meet a flick down from Wyke.
Moments later, what felt as if it could be a defining moment arrived.
Lincoln again gifted possession away deep in their own half, and it looked as if Wyke had done the hard work when went round Palmer with ease. But then caught between going for the shot and squaring it for a team-mate, he could only turn the ball into the recovering defender.
The Stadium of Light responded by chanting his name, but for a while it felt as if some of the sting may have gone out of the contest.
Again, it was McGeady who stepped up.
A free kick from deep dropped to him on the left of the box, and again he showed the speed of his footwork as he shifted it onto his left and crossed. Wyke did superbly, getting ahead of his marker to meet the volley. Palmer threw out a hand to try and claw it away but the effort was too precise and the scores were level.
Lincoln had offered little, though the home side were indebted to Bailey Wright when he did well to block a smart low drive from Brennan Johnson.
The visitors looked as if they had relaxed a little, but they appeared to be given an extraordinarily lucky break just moments later. Sunderland arced a long ball towards the edge of the Lincoln City area, Palmer dithering just a moment too long. Stewart appeaered to beat him to it, but the referee waved play on as he went to ground.
The scores were unchanged at the break, and that there was parity in the tie overall felt surprising was indicative of Sunderland’s dominance through the half.
It was also reflected in Michael Appleton’s half-time call to make a double substitution to try and turn the tide.
The break served them well, noticeably more composed in their passing.
As they found themselves to play through the press, for the first time they found gaps in Sunderland’s shape off the ball. The hosts were given a major let off just minutes into the half, when Poole rose to meet a corner and headed it off the underside of the bar.
When the Black Cats again failed to respond to the danger, they were punished.
Another excellent corner was swung into the heart of the box and this time was met by Hopper, who powered his effort into the far corner.
The pattern of the game had shifted entirely, and just after the hour mark Lincoln had their chance to all but win it.
With McFadzean down injured, Lincoln broke down the left and substitute McGrandles drew a trip as he cut back inside from the byline. With the campaign on the line Burge made a stunning save, flying high to his right to deny Grant.
Lincoln were steady, impressive in their composure even having watched that chance pass them by.
Sunderland were dominating both territory and possession, but were struggling to create any real chances.
The visitors were content to set in, but passed up another major chance when Wright was unable to deal with a long ball. McGrandles raced through, but somehow fired his effort both high and wide. Sunderland almost made them pay within minutes, but McGeady hit the post with a firm half volley and when the loose ball fell to Wyke, he could only find the side netting.
The Black Cats did go close when substitute O’Brien forced a save from Palmer, but for the most part the play was too aimless and Lincoln were able to hold on.