Sunderland desperate to overturn play-off deficit against Lincoln

As the sun set over Sincil Bank on Wednesday Sunderland’s hopes of escaping League One seemed to be fading in synch with the evening light. Lee Johnson’s side were 2-0 down after the first leg of their play-off semi-final against Lincoln and contemplating the unpalatable prospect of spending a fourth successive season in the third tier.

That fate can still be avoided but, as Johnson acknowledges, there is scant margin for error in front of 10,000 fans in Saturday’s second leg. “We’re still in this,” said the former Bristol City manager. “But we have to turn it round on one of the biggest days in our club’s recent history.”

Given that Michael Appleton’s Lincoln boast League One’s best away record it seems quite a big if, but even with a markedly reduced capacity the Stadium of Light can be an elemental arena. “The fans will have to be our extra man,” said Johnson, who must hope Appleton is distracted by West Brom’s managerial overtures. “Everyone has to ensure the stadium’s an absolute cauldron. We need to score first and keep on scoring.”

Sunderland’s manager does not want to be responsible for delaying the fast-track roadmap back to the Premier League sketched out by the club’s owner, the 24-year-old trust fund billionaire Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, but much hinges on Aiden McGeady’s performance.

The 35-year-old Republic of Ireland winger may be high maintenance but, on his day, McGeady retains some of the exceptional two-footed talent which transported him to Celtic, Spartak Moscow and Everton.

Johnson rescued a player frozen out during Phil Parkinson’s managerial tenure from Sunderland’s deep freeze and could do with the favour being returned. “I brought Geads back from the dead and he’s shown strong leadership on and off the pitch,” he said. “He’s a top player. Top players come with demands and he’s not always easy to manage but I appreciate the intensity he wants. He’s tough. I’m confident he’ll step up in the way we need.”

McGeady disappointed at Lincoln but Johnson’s cause was arguably hampered by McGeady’s status as one of 14 Sunderland players out of contract this summer. By way of further complication, a clause in the winger’s contract dictated that starting a 30th match this season would trigger a one-year extension. Wednesday marked fixture No 29.

Given that McGeady is, by some distance, the club’s best-paid player, Louis-Dreyfus was unwilling to trigger that arrangement without knowing which division the team will reside in next season but an apparent standoff was resolved by McGeady seemingly signing a waiver agreement on Friday. “It’s not fair to reveal contractual details but it shows Aiden’s a top human being,” said Johnson. “It’s all good for Saturday; Aiden’s proved his class.”

Even so, the lack of ties binding players’ medium-term futures to Wearside arguably represents one reason behind the collapse which saw Sunderland win only two of their last 13 League One fixtures after lifting the Papa John’s Trophy in March.

With the team’s once bright automatic promotion hopes dashed, Johnson became an amateur psychologist, constantly accentuating the positives. “There’s been a lot of propaganda,” he said. “Not quite brainwashing but as close as you can get. We want every individual to bring out the best version of themselves.”

It would help if Charlie Wyke could recapture his old penalty area form. Sunderland’s centre-forward has scored 30 goals in 53 appearances this term but only four since the Papa John’s triumph against Tranmere. Perhaps significantly, he is coveted by Championship Middlesbrough, whose manager, Neil Warnock, is scheduled to be at the Stadium of Light.

By uncanny coincidence, Wyke scored twice as Johnson presided over a 4-0 win at Lincoln during his first game in charge in December. “We’ve scored four against these before,” said Sunderland’s manager. “There’s no doubt we can do it again – but we’ve got to be more vigilant at the back and more clinical up top.”

Although Johnson trusts the Football League’s biggest crowd in 14 months can heap psychological pressure on Appleton’s players, tempting them to defend too deep, he fears being caught on the counter. “For the first time this season we’re underdogs and that could help,” said the 39-year-old. “But we’ve got to be as aggressive as possible without losing control.”

He still cannot quite believe that, five years ago, Sunderland were in the Premier League and Lincoln the National League yet knows precisely what is at stake. “It’s the biggest game of my career,” said Johnson. “Everything’s wrapped up in me; I’m simultaneously the manager, the aggressor, the controller, the one that loves the lads and the fan who wants to turn it round and create a great story for everybody.”