Lincoln boss Michael Appleton was proud of his players after they seized the initiative in their Sky Bet League One first leg play-off clash with Sunderland, running out deserved 2-0 winners at a raucous LNER Stadium.
Following a goalless first half, Tom Hopper struck after 51 minutes to give the Imps the lead, before Brennan Johnson took advantage of a goalkeeping blunder by Lee Burge to double the advantage.
And while Appleton knows the job is only half finished, he admitted would rather be heading to Wearside on Saturday firmly in the driving seat.
“It is a dangerous position to be in, but I’d much rather be in it than not,” he said. “For a young group to stay as resolute as they were in that second half was great. They put us under a lot of pressure, like you would expect, and I thought the way we dealt with that and controlled it was good.
“We went in front and naturally sat back a bit, letting them dictate play. But having said that, getting the second goal gives us a little bit more breathing space.”
Appleton also hailed the display of goalkeeping debutant Josef Bursik, who was brought in on an emergency loan following a head injury to regular stopper Alex Palmer. And the 20-year-old earned his corn with two fabulous second-half saves to keep the Black Cats out.
“He made a couple of vital saves, was a safe pair of hands, came for crosses when he needed to and was very, very assured,” said Appleton, who also paid tribute to the first supporters seen at the ground for over 430 days.
“It was brilliant to have the fans back. When the goals went in, that adrenaline rush, and the loud noise they create, despite there only being 3,000 here.”
Johnson struck a post for City before the break, before Bursik produced a super save from Jordan Jones, with Bailey Wright also heading against the crossbar.
Lincoln then took the lead through Hopper, who drilled home Jorge Grant’s cross.
Bursik then brilliantly denied Aiden McGeady, before City doubled their advantage when Johnson chased a backpass and, under pressure, Burge could only kick his clearance against the attacker and he had the easy job of walking it into the net.
Sunderland manager Lee Johnson believes his side can turn around the deficit, but says his team need to draw on all their reserves to book a place at Wembley.
“I am obviously disappointed to be 2-0 down going into the second leg,” said Johnson. “But I truly believe we can still do it. We need to have a big, big night on Saturday.
“I thought the first 15 minutes they were better than us, before we eventually took control and I thought we were the better side. Obviously the keeper has had a worldie and we had some good deliveries across the box, but not the luck like they did.
“The 2-0 loss gives us no room for error whatsoever. We will have to take the game from the start and we know what we’ve got to do. We are still in this.”
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.