Lee Johnson reacts to dismal play-off first leg defeat at Lincoln City - and has this message for Sunderland fans
Lee Johnson insists that Sunderland's play-off hopes are still alive, and challenged his players to produce one of the biggest days in the club's recent history on Saturday.
Defensive errors allowed Lincoln City to take a 2-0 lead from the first leg at the LNER Stadium, while in the second half the Black Cats spurned a number of opportunities.
Lincoln had the better of the first half and Johnson said his side had to improve in both boxes.
“It’s half-time, simple as that," Johnson said.
"It's half-time, and we’re 2-0 down. We created numerous chances today, and their goalkeeper has had a worldie.
"Obviously, the bar has saved them a couple of times as well, and we didn’t quite get the breaks. But there’s more got to be done.
"The first 15 or 20 minutes, we need to make sure it’s an absolute cauldron at the Stadium of Light That’s really important. We’re still in this, but we’ve got to be more vigilant than we were at the back and we’ve got to be clinical up top.
"We know we can score, and we've had goals in us all season," he added.
"We need to create that environment that's energetic, play with the tempo, and nullify their threats better than we did today.
"It's hard against a good side with good threats but we have to take those risks.
"We had chances, and we had chances where the ball flashed across the box as well.
"We had opportunities in the first half to upgrade the cross and deliver better than we did.
"We delivered too deep which is something we did when I first came in, and it isolates the striker in the box.
"It was much better in the second half after the team talk.
"Jordan Jones was bright, Lynden Gooch was bright, and their left-back then had Jack Diamond to deal with as well, but we couldn't get that elusive game that we really, really needed today.
"We have write our own story now, and it could be one of the biggest nights in the club's recent history on Saturday if we turn this around."
Johnson had opted to bring Tom Flanagan back for his first start since the Papa John's Trophy final on Wednesday evening, with Luke O'Nien moving to right back after Conor McLaughlin was ruled out.
The Sunderland head coach admitted it was a difficult one but McLaughlin's absence forced his hand.
Johnson conceded that Lincoln City forward Tom Hopper played well on a night where Sunderland created chances but looked vulnerable at the other end.
The hosts hit the post through Brennan Johnson in the first half and missed other good chances, leaving the Black Cats perhaps fortunate to reach the break level.
The goals they conceded were soft, particularly the second in which Lee Burge's clearance was charged down by Johnson.
It ws that goal that particularly disappointed the head coach, though he also felt the first goal should have been stopped at source.
“I’m disappointed with the second goal," Johnson said.
"The first goal starts high and wide where we don’t press, and we know they’re good on the cut-back. Burgey makes a great save to be fair, but at 1-0 you’ve got that 15 minutes to go and get an equaliser or take that 1-0 deficit home and turn it round. "2-0 is a bigger task, but at the same time, we believe we can do it.
“With Tom, it is a difficult one, but we’ve got no right-back either so you’re either playing a central midfielder at right-back against a very quick wide man and risking the two centre-halves," he added.
"I thought they did alright, although not quite well enough for my liking. We’ve got to be stronger. I thought Hopper played well and dominated too many times, but we did have general control of the game for 60 odd minutes.
"I presume we had better possession and more chances, more shots on goal. But the biggest stat doesn’t lie and unfortunately we’ve got to turn it around and have a really big night."
The hosts benefited from the vocal backing of 3,000 supporters at the LNER Stadium, and Johnson says that will be a major boost to his players on Saturday.
The Stadium of Light is set to welcome back 10,000 fans for the second leg and Johnson says it is up to his squad to create the atmosphere that can power his side to an unlikely comeback.
He did, though, caution them against chasing the game in the early stages, wary of Lincoln’s counter-attacking threat.
“The supporters will be our extra man, then it’s up to the boys," Johnson said.
"Listen, we can score two goals. I’ve got no doubts about that. We can score four goals, we’ve done that against these before.
"But we’ve got to be vigilant at the back, and we’ve got to make sure that we’re not just chasing it. You can score two goals in five or ten minutes, especially at home with the crowd behind you.”