After nearly 15 months, Sunderland fans finally returned to the Stadium of Light, though circumstances dictated that there could be no time for basking in such glory.
A dismal display at Sincil Bank had left Lee Johnson’s men with a two-goal deficit to overturn in the second leg of this League One play-off semi-final. Having just about stopped being angry about that first leg, we lucky 10,000 arrived back home dreaming of one of those special days we have missed so much.
For a while, we got one. You could be forgiven for thinking that the fabled ‘Roker Roar’ was a relic of a bygone era, but Saturday proved that the Wearside faithful, beaten down by years of misery and failure, still have it in them somewhere.
Three-quarters empty it may have been, but the players emerged into a cauldron, and they responded in suit by cooking up a storm.
The importance of a good start was lost on nobody, and Ross Stewart’s smart finish from Aiden McGeady’s cross was just rewards for a whirlwind opening.
The noise that greeted that was a roar of belief, a roar of months of pent-up frustration of watching a strong campaign fade away in front of laptops and TV screens, but one that knew that the work had only just begun.
Not long after, a very League One error from the visiting Imps presented Sunderland with the chance to level, as an attempt to play out from the back by Lewis Montsoma saw the ball ricochet into the path of 26-goal Charlie Wyke. The big man coolly rounded the keeper, before seemingly forgetting how to do the next bit, allowing the bodies to get back to block when it seemed all that needed to happen was the ball be rolled into the empty net.
However Wyke didn’t need long to make amends. Another McGeady cross was met by the studs of Wyke to bring the tie level after just half an hour. The half played out with the Black Cats continuing to press, Lincoln continuing to look utterly lost and the players leaving the field to one last rallying cry from the home faithful.
The going was tough at kick-off. For 45 minutes we might all have been daft enough to think that the tough had got going. We really do never learn.
The Lincoln keeper Alex Palmer emerged early, presumably to gather his thoughts having hardly covered himself in glory for Wyke’s leveller. Lincoln were not settled. So, like the good hosts Sunderland have a hard-earned reputation for being, we let them do just that.
The visitors, who over the season have impressed every time I have seen them, were allowed to knock the ball about with little concern – the introduction of Conor McGrandles for the surprisingly ineffective Anthony Scully helping in that regard.
While the tie was now level and Lincoln were always going to have a spell in the game, to come out after half-time and concede all initiative never seemed like a great idea. The stands were quieter as years of watching one of English football’s great basket-cases informed suspicions the inevitable was imminent.
Regan Poole hitting the bar from a corner still drew a gasp from the Stadium of Light, followed by a reassuring surge of noise in a polite suggestion to our charges to switch back on.
Needless to say, from the next corner the away side followed through on their threat. Wyke ball-watching at the near post while Tom Hopper, Lincoln’s own big bloke with a nine on his back, completed the simple task of heading in, unmarked, from the middle of the six-yard-box.
At 3-2 down with just over a half hour to go, Sunderland did have a bit of a go, but could never quite rediscover the energy of the first 45 minutes. A Lee Burge penalty save rallied the crowd but had little effect on a team out of ideas, faced with a Lincoln side seemingly more assured it could complete the task at hand than it had been at kick-off. McGeady struck the post ten minutes from time, and with that, hope was more or less lost.
As the final whistle blew, and the comedians on Tyneside, and in Portsmouth, Coventry and all the other places we’ve made and rekindled friendships in the lower leagues took to Twitter to post pictures of Connect Four games where the counters are the League One badge, we were left to reflect on that forthcoming fourth campaign in the third tier.
While ‘we would have got whacked every week in the Championship anyway’ may sound very much the words of fans trudging home from a play-off defeat, there is some truth to them.
Most of the squad are out of contract, and in truth very few of them would be missed by most. I should be clear, amongst the doom and gloom, in my opinion Saturday’s win – because it was a win – was merited by a generally good display. Lincoln’s progress to Wembley is also deserved, mostly because we didn’t seem to bother playing the first game, which is never ideal in a two-legged tie, and we wish them well in that very tricky final with a very good Blackpool side.
But ultimately, overhaul is once more required. New owner Kyril-Louis Dreyfus has talked of a long-term project and it is hard to see how many of the lads involved on Saturday could be part of that.
Even Wyke, and this has been the unspeakable truth this season, has scored in bursts and was otherwise ineffective to the point of anonymity in countless miserable results.
And in those miserable results we find countless ifs, buts and maybes. One certain positive from Saturday’s return was the sight of Aiden McGeady in red and white, potentially for the last time. Our Irish wing wizard seemed to be able to beat players at will in the first half, as he has done for years, and, along with setting up two goals, was a joy to watch.
His exclusion until December is the easy thing to point to when lamenting what might have been this term. As is the failure to notice that Wolves loanee Dion Sanderson was probably the best centre-half in the league until halfway through the season, when he finally got the chance to play regularly.
But at the end of the day, Sunderland lost twice to Wigan, didn’t beat relegated Northampton in either meeting and drew 17 (seventeen!) games. With the biggest budget, the best facilities and everything else that comes with being six-time champions of England. Yet our campaign ended with defeat to a side who play an air raid siren every time they get a corner. Enough said.
Moving forward, well, who knows? Some would have you believe Lee Johnson’s days are now numbered. Admittedly, his tendency for sweeping substitutions when things are going wrong isn’t winning him any favours here, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter who he picks.
A stable of central midfielders who all do about the same thing, and yet who all seem to do very little at all. Wide men who can only be trusted to be consistently inconsistent, McGeady just about excluded. A treatment room full of centre-halves, none of which have convinced this term to the point where the best central defender actually contracted to the club has been Luke O’Nien, a central midfielder, turned right-back, turned centre-back.
Expect the retained list to be short, the transfer rumours to be long, and the enthusiasm for the latest new dawn we are being promised to be very, very fragile. But at least next season, we will all be there to see the 1-1 draw with – checks League Two table – Cheltenham Town.
Image: Walt Jabsco via Flickr