LEE JOHNSON admits deciding whether or not to start with Tom Flanagan is one of the biggest decisions he has to make ahead of the first leg of Sunderland’s play-off semi-final with Lincoln City next Wednesday.

For most of the first half of the season, Flanagan partnered Bailey Wright in the Black Cats’ first-choice centre-half pairing, but a succession of injury issues meant the 29-year-old barely kicked a ball in the second half of the campaign.

A persistent foot problem triggered other issues with Flanagan’s hamstrings and hip, and restricted him to just two league starts from the middle of December onwards.

He was not deemed fit enough to be involved in Sunday’s season-ending 1-1 draw with Northampton Town, but played the opening 45 minutes of Monday’s Under-23s draw with Stoke City at the Academy of Light.

Sunderland are hoping to arrange a behind-closed-doors friendly on Friday that will enable Flanagan to get more game time under his belt, but he will still be heading into Wednesday’s semi-final opener lacking competitive match practice.

Given Flanagan’s experience, and the fact that his return would enable Luke O’Nien to be repositioned in midfield, Johnson will be tempted to thrust him straight back into the starting side alongside Wright. However, there are obvious risks to such a move, and the Black Cats boss will be weighing up the pros and cons over the next few days before making a final decision.

“It’s a difficult one,” admitted Johnson. “The timing of it means that you’ve chased it, but at the same time, he’s got to feel right and be right.

“In an ideal world, I would like to have seen him in the game at the weekend (against Northampton). But that came a little bit early. Therefore, we’ve got to make a serious call, whatever that may be. I think there’s a serious call on three or four of the lads to be honest. That’s my job I suppose.”

The bookmakers make Sunderland slight favourites to emerge triumphant from the four play-off hopefuls, although there is very little to choose between any of the teams, who were separated by just six points. Lincoln finished level on points with the Black Cats, and two of the three matches between the sides this season finished in a draw. February’s Papa John’s Trophy semi-final went all the way to penalties, while Lincoln returned to Wearside just over a month later and claimed another 1-1 draw in the league.

“I think Lincoln are a really good side,” said Johnson. “They’ve got a lot of athleticism, and I think their best XI is up there with the best in the league. They’ve got two wide men who are pacey, good footballers and a bit of bite in midfield, and a backline that, on their day, are very solid and secure. There’s no doubt that we’re going to have to be at our best over the potentially 180-plus minutes to get a result.”

The anomaly in the sides’ meetings this season was Sunderland’s emphatic 4-0 win at Sincil Bank in December. Sunderland sliced Lincoln apart on the counter-attack at will six months ago, but while Johnson will be reexamining the game to see if there are any lessons to take forward, he accepts both teams are in a very different position half-a-year on.

“You consider everything,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s the past and a lot of things have changed. I think you’ve got to really assess the last five or six games of the opposition, and also be honest about where you are as a team and a squad.

"There are a lot of people in different places, both mentally and physically, than from both teams back on that day.”