90 Minutes From Wembley: Imps 2-0 Sunderland

Credit Graham Burrell

The second half started worryingly for City, as Sunderland turned the screw. Dad and I were in a great position to see Jordan Jones‘ effort which Bursik tipped onto the bar, a wonderful save that kept us in the game. As McGeady came across to take the corner he got a round of boos and abuse, but I stayed silent. I’ve seen it too many times, you call a player and immediately his delivery leads to a goal. McGeady is a player who can deliver, and he did, whipping in a lovely corner for Bailey Wright to head against the crossbar. The big bad wolf was huffing and puffing, but even if the ball went in, I don’t think anything was blowing Sincil Bank down last night. Had they scored, the noise would have kept on coming, the fans would have stayed focused on supporting the team. As it was, rattling the bar only served to crank the volume up another notch.

When the first goal came, it was hard to see from our vantage point. Scully and Johnson, both excellent all night, combined to serve up Grant who saw his shot saved. Then the captain grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, hauled it up to face level and screamed ‘we are Imps’ in its face, rampaging through the Sunderland back four and getting the ball to Grant. He delivers, more punctually than DPD, and at the back stick was the goal poacher Tom Hopper moving into double figures. I found it ironic, all the talk before the play-off was of Jerry Yates, Charlie Wyke and Matty Taylor, and the fact we didn’t have that fox in the box. Right on cue, Hopps delivers. I had a chat with someone before the game about us being more clinical, and with the greatest of respect, Hopps hasn’t always been that, but cometh the hour, cometh the man.

Credit Graham Burrell

At first, I celebrated like the rest of the crowd, it felt second-nature. It was only after a split second I realised the gravity of that goal. It was the first we’d celebrated in 15 months or so, the first time I’d heard that roar which, over the years, has been a refuge for me and many other fans. If your life is shit, it doesn’t matter for a few seconds after a Lincoln City goal. If you are rich, poor, healthy or sick, you forget it as the net ripples and 3,000 (or 10,000) fans unite in unbridled joy. As Hopps wheeled away to celebrate and I stopped hugging my Dad, I got a familiar feeling. I’d missed this. It is my drug, my ‘just one more’ issue that I can’t shake off. I’ve had addictions in the past, I’ve smoked, I’ve been hooked on painkillers and even computer games, but this is the one that will always keep me coming back. Again, I don’t cry, but I could have done. Oh yes, I could have done and writing this now, I’ve got goosebumps. In the moment the goal was what it was, an opener against Sunderland in a play-off semi-final, a huge goal, but in the context of the wider world, it was so much more and always will be. Cheers Hopps.

Putting the emotion to one side, there was still a game of football to be won and Sunderland thought they could do it. They could too, they’re a decent side and when McGeady is in your team, you have a fighting chance. He really is the main threat, the go-to man whenever they need a moment’s magic. Regan Poole had him marshalled well, but he’s like a Jack-in-the-Box, you can’t keep him quiet all of the time. When he did deliver, the threat of Mr Wyke loomed large.

Credit Graham Burrell

I was pleased to see tackles flying in, a few that were a bit tastier than you see on iFollow. The crowd definitely added needle and a pace that might not have been seen all season. I tell you something – I wouldn’t want my car to collide with a Bridcutt slide tackle, because I think it would come off worse. He’s fearless and more than once I saw him fouled, only to get retribution a little while after. His booking, for an off-the-ball block on Wyke (I think) seemed to come after the Sunderland striker had left an elbow in on one of ours a few moments before. Bridcutt is like a big brother, if you pick on any of his siblings he’s going to smash you. It was a physical encounter at times and both teams gave as good as they got.

Sunderland had their chances and every single Imps’ player put his body on the line, TJ Eyoma took more blows than I care to count (there is a simile there but even I draw the line somewhere), and when the defence was breached, the excellent Bursik pulled off the saves needed to keep us in the tie. On 77 (ish) minutes, we did look a little tired and I had only remarked to my Dad that it had 1-1 written all over it seconds before the keeper launched a big boot downfield. How ironic, after a season of wonderful football and slick passing, the goal that seals the first leg comes from a big punt down the middle. You all know what happened, their semi-fit defender Tom Flanagan lazily pushed it back to Burge and Johnson, doubtless fuelled by the adrenalin of a loud cheer, chased the ball down. 99 times out of a hundred he doesn’t get the ball, or it cannons off for a throw-in or a goal kick, but this was the one-in-a-hundred chance, in the 59th game of an epic season. On this occasion, God smiled down and the ball dropped to his feet yards from goal. Apparently, he said afterwards as he saw events unfold he was already planning his celebration. Me too Brennan, me too.

Credit Graham Burrell

I rushed to the loo after that and as I found my seat again, I heard Alan Long announce the time of the goal and I was convinced he said 67 minutes. That’s how quickly the evening flashed by, everything seemed so new and exciting that it was over in an instant. There were no nerves as the clock wound down, after Brennan’s goal it only seemed like seconds before the board went up. Even in injury time, which was agonising and protracted at London Road, the seconds flew by, and I was shocked to see we went over by a minute or two. It was a great match though, why wouldn’t the referee want to see it go on?

The final whistle brought a big cheer, not the biggest of the night. In fact, one of the best moments was right at the end when Harry Anderson came on. The stadium erupted into his song, probably because he is the only player who even has his own song this season, but also because he is a proper City icon, a player who has been here through the whole rise. There is some discussion over whether he stays or not, but I sincerely hope he does and by the sounds of it, 3,000 other fans feel the same.

Credit Graham Burrell

Nothing is won at half time and last night’s game will feel very different after Saturday. Right now, it is the first series of a great show, think Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. It is the brilliant opening, the curtain-raiser which has us all excited about what is to come. Saturday, at the Stadium of Light, will either provide the suitable ending Breaking Bad got, or disappointment which tarnishes, to some degree, last night’s result.

What will never be tarnished, not by defeat at the SoL, by the passing of time or anything else, is finally being back at the Bank. Nothing will ever take away that roar as Hopper’s goal went in and the realisation that we are heading back towards normality. In fact, the only noise that will ever better that, aside from 4,000 fans in London celebrating a winning play-off final goal, is the roar of 10,000 supporters when the Imps run out for next season’s opener when we’re all back and together, Imps As One.

Rate The Imps Players

Next Page – Bubs’ Gallery and a couple from me too