It’s advantage Lincoln City after the Imps defeated Sunderland 2-0 in the first leg of the League One play-off semi-finals on Wednesday night.
Second-half goals from Tom Hopper and Brennan Johnson secured a big win for Michael Appleton’s side, who will take a two-goal advantage into Saturday’s second leg on Wearside.
The first real chance of the contest fell Lincoln’s way, with the Imps giving their vociferous home crowd reason to get off their seats on six minutes. Jorge Grant led a break from the left and switched the play with an excellent cross-field pass to Anthony Scully, who took one touch before firing over the bar from the edge of the area.
The visitors were forced into an early change soon after, with Denver Hume hobbling off and being replaced by Callum McFadzean, as the Imps continued to push for an opener. Morgan Rogers was the next to threaten from long-range, driving between two Sunderland midfielders before lashing an effort wide. The hosts then forced into a frustrating change moments later, with Lewis Montsma replacing the injured Adam Jackson.
Montsma, who has scored an impressive nine goals from centre-half in all competitions this season, nearly made an immediate impact and nearly made it double figures for the campaign. The ball fell kindly for the Dutchman after a cross was headed away, before volleying at goal and forcing Lee Burge into a tremendous low save.
The Imps were well on top as the game approached halfway, with Sunderland failing to get into their usual rhythm and tempo. Aiden McGeady cut a frustrated figure after giving possession cheaply, and their main focal point, Charlie Wyke, was being marshalled well by Montsma and TJ Eyoma.
The best chance of the half came on 35 minutes, though. Grant’s cute flick ignited a quick counter, with the ball finding Brennan Johnson out on the right. The Wales international drove at goal, before firing low and beyond Burge, but off the woodwork.
An unmarked Rogers headed the resulting corner off target, and there was no takers when the lively Scully drilled a dangerous low ball across goal. Michael Appleton, though, will have been satisfied with the way his side had performed in the opening 45 minutes and how well they responded to the energy their home faithful were producing from the terraces.
As the interval drew closer, Sunderland showed signs of improvement, with Luke O’Nien’s long-range effort flying just wide of Josef Bursik’s goal. McGeady then should have done better when the ball dropped for him 15 yards out, with the 35-year-old curling high and wide before the whistle blew for half-time.
Sunderland were to start the second half much brighter, and they hit the crossbar twice in a minute. Jordan Jones was the first to hit the woodwork, cutting inside from the right and firing an effort goal wards, which Bursik had to tip onto his bar and out of play. From the resulting corner, Bailey Wright escaped his marker and rifled a header off the woodwork. Two chances the Black Cats were left to rue, as Lincoln broke the deadlock.
Moments after Grant’s goalbound effort was kept out superbly by Burge following Scully’s pull-back, the former recovered well, receiving the ball from Liam Bridcutt and firing a teasing effort back across goal, and there was Tom Hopper to tap home at the back post and give the Imps the lead on 51 minutes, sparking pandemonium inside the LNER Stadium.
Sunderland went in search of a response just after the hour mark. McGeady’s curling effort looked set to nestle into the bottom corner but for an excellent stop by Bursik, who only joined the Imps on Tuesday after penning an emergency loan move from Stoke City following an injury to Alex Palmer.
Lee Johnson rang the changes in the 67th minute, with Jones and Max Power making way for Ross Stewart and Grant Leadbitter. Stewart partnering Wyke in a bid to add more impetus and physical prowess in the final third. McGeady was to come close once again moments later, misplacing another effort and curling over from the edge of the box.
But the Black Cats were the creators of their own downfall, as the Imps doubled their lead in bizarre circumstances on 77 minutes.
Brennan Johnson showed excellent work-rate to chase down a lost cause and close Lee Burge down, with the goalkeeper firing a clearance straight at the Nottingham Forest loanee, who had the simplest of tasks when tapping the ball into an empty net. The 13th goal of the season for the 19-year-old, and perhaps the most precious of them all.
Leadbitter tried to ignite a response for the visitors soon after but the midfielder’s long-range effort deflected wide for a corner – Tom Flanagan heading harmlessly off target from the set-play.
Six minutes were added on at the contest, with Sunderland continuing to fail to possess any quality in the final third. Craig Hicks blew the full-time whistle to mark the end of a fabulous 96 minutes of work for the Imps, with the LNER Stadium left bouncing with 3,000 jubilant supporters.
Michael Appleton’s side possess the best away form in League One this season – that should stand them in good stead, then, as they prepare to take a two-goal advantage to Wearside on Saturday.