THIS time, the penalties all went in. Two years on from the heartbreak of a penalty shoot-out defeat at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy final, Sunderland exorcised at least some of their spot-kick demons to book a return visit to the national stadium in the final of the rechristened Papa John’s Trophy.

Whereas Lee Cattermole had missed the decisive penalty against Portsmouth in 2019, this time it was another North-East midfielder, Grant Leadbitter, who stepped up to stroke home decisively from 12 yards.

With all five of Sunderland’s penalty takers scoring – Max Power, Luke O’Nien, Chris Maguire and Aiden McGeady also held their nerve – Remy Howarth’s miss proved critical, with the Lincoln substitute striking the third of his side’s efforts against the crossbar.

Sunderland had been outplayed for much of the previous 90 minutes, but stirred themselves when it mattered in the final half-hour, with Charlie Wyke’s latest headed goal successfully cancelling out Anthony Scully’s 64th-minute opener.

The EFL Trophy is not the priority this season, but the Black Cats will rightly feel they have a score to settle when they head to Wembley to face Tranmere Rovers on March 14. Sunderland have been to Wembley on seven separate occasions since Bob Stokoe’s side lifted the FA Cup in 1973, and each time they have left disappointed. Perhaps it will be a case of eighth time lucky next month.

The huge disappointment, of course, is that there will almost certainly be no supporters at the home of English football to cheer their side on, and no Wearside takeover of Trafalgar Square and Covent Garden on the night before the game either.

That is a huge shame, but if Sunderland can end their Wembley hoodoo against League Two opposition next month, you suspect their fans will still come up with a variety of novel ways to celebrate the event remotely. When you have suffered as much disappointment as the Black Cats’ long-suffering supporters, any sniff of silverware, no matter how seemingly inconsequential, is not to be shrugged off lightly.

Had the fans been in the Stadium of Light last night, fingernails would have been nervously chewed. Sunderland might have claimed a 4-0 win at Sincil Bank in December, but Lincoln’s position at the top of the League One table is no fluke. Michael Appleton’s side look more likely to win promotion than the Black Cats at this stage, and last night’s game showcased the visitors’ qualities.

Technically proficient and comfortable in possession, Lincoln’s players out-passed their opponents for long periods, with their overlapping full-backs pouring forward at every opportunity to ensure there were always plenty of blue-shirted players straining to break into Sunderland’s 18-yard box.

The Black Cats were forced to field a makeshift defence, with the absence of the injured Jordan Willis and Tom Flanagan exacerbated by the unavailability of the cup-tied Dion Sanderson. Lee Johnson could have fielded Conor McLaughlin at centre-half, but instead opted to select O’Nien in yet another new position, alongside Bailey Wright. Or at least he did for the opening 45 minutes, before the start of the second half saw McLaughlin replace Wright in yet another reshuffle.

True to form, O’Nien did not let anyone down at the heart of the back four, winning headers when required and sweeping up alongside first Wright and then McLaughlin, who both tended to take the lead when it came to directly challenging Lincoln’s central striker, Tom Hopper.

Signed as a midfielder, developed as a wing-back, and also used as a right-back, left-back and, briefly, as a number ten during his time at the Stadium of Light, the description ‘versatile’ does not adequately describe the extent of O’Nien’s adaptability. The only surprise, more than two-and-a-half years into his Sunderland career, is that he has not yet turned up in goal.

His outfield defensive talents were tested last night, but he proved up to the task. While Lincoln’s players might have dominated possession for much of the evening, they rarely found themselves in a position where they could ask serious questions of Lee Burge.

Lewis Montsma headed a tenth-minute corner over the crossbar and full-back TJ Eyoma fired a low shot wide after a slick one-two enabled him to break into the box four minutes later, but that was pretty much that in terms of Lincoln’s goalscoring threat before the break.

In truth, Sunderland were not really any more penetrative, although the presence of homegrown youngster Dan Neil in midfield helped ensure the hosts were equally as comfortable in possession as their opponents.

Like Lincoln, however, their attacks tended to break down once they reached the opposition’s back four, with Wyke enduring a rather different experience to the one he encountered on Saturday, when he was afforded the freedom of the penalty area as he scored four against Doncaster. Last night, Sunderland’s leading scorer barely touched the ball in the 18-yard box, never mind taking it home.

The hosts fashioned a couple of half-chances towards the end of the opening period, although both involved shots from distance. Callum McFadzean’s low effort was deflected narrowly wide of the post, before McGeady forced Lincoln goalkeeper Alex Palmer into a decent parry with an angled strike from the corner of the box.

The second half proved every bit as tight and competitive as the first, with chances remaining at a premium.

Jorge Grant wasted a decent position as he fired a 55th-minute free-kick over the crossbar for Lincoln, before his Imps team-mate, Brennan Johnson, proved even more wasteful. Johnson met a low ball from the left-hand side on a perfect stride at the edge of the area, but sliced his side-footed first-time effort well wide.

The opportunity was evidence of Lincoln’s growing threat though, and the visitors broke the deadlock shortly after the hour mark.

Conor McGrandles met a low cross from the left with a side-footed shot from close to the penalty spot, and while Lee Grant got down to claw the ball away, Scully was on hand to stroke home the rebound from close range.

Trailing with less than half-an-hour left, Sunderland were stung into action after falling behind. Having been reluctant to commit too many men forward, the Black Cats felt compelled to throw caution to the wind as they chased the game.

Palmer held on to Lynden Gooch’s long-range drive and made the save of the game as he tipped Wyke’s diving header over the crossbar after the Sunderland striker flung himself forward to meet Jack Diamond’s cross.

Palmer produced another stop from Wyke moments later, parrying the striker’s low strike at his near post, but just as it looked as though the Black Cats were going to finish frustrated, Saturday’s match-winning duo combined again to fashion an equaliser.

McGeady reprised his role of assister-in-chief, clipping over a cross from the right, and Wyke was once again Sunderland’s master finisher, easing ahead of his marker in order to angle a header into the bottom corner.