IN the end, they had left themselves with too much to do. Sunderland strained every sinew in an attempt to repair the damage that had been inflicted at Sincil Bank on Wednesday, but while they won the game in the second leg, they lost the battle on aggregate. While Lincoln’s players will head to Wembley a week tomorrow, Sunderland’s will spend the summer preparing for what will be a fourth successive season in League One.

They couldn’t have done a lot more today, scoring two goals in the first half and saving a penalty in the second, but Tom Hopper’s 56th-minute header ultimately proved decisive. Over the course of the two legs, as with the season as a whole, Sunderland just came up short.

The disappointment at the full-time whistle was palpable. Sunderland’s supporters have waited more than a year to return to the Stadium of Light; their presence undoubtedly lifted the Black Cats’ players, especially in the first half, but this was not to be a happy homecoming.

The Black Cats squad were roared onto the pitch as they left the tunnel for their pre-match warm-up, and the decibel levels increased as kick-off approached.

Crucially, Sunderland’s players took their cue from the crowd from the off. Ross Stewart and Charlie Wyke closed down like men possessed, the recalled Chris Maguire tore here, there and everywhere to prevent Lincoln’s players from being able to play out from the back and despite being asked to play out of position at right-back, Lynden Gooch was another ball of energy down the right-hand side.

Having been so passive and subdued three days earlier, Sunderland were completely unrecognisable from the side that surrendered so meekly at Sincil Bank.

Lincoln’s players, resembling rabbits in the headlight, could not live with them, and the Black Cats fully merited the two-goal lead they took into the break.

Aiden McGeady, whose willingness to resolve his contractual situation proved so crucial, set up both goals, crossing for Stewart to stab home at the front post before delivering another excellent centre that Wyke converted with a first-time volley.

Sunderland were level on aggregate at the break, and things might have been even better had referee Michael Salisbury awarded a penalty when Lincoln goalkeeper Alex Palmer appeared to bundle over Stewart on the edge of the area. There definitely appeared to be contact, but to the disbelief of the Stadium of Light support, the referee waved play on.

The half-time interval came at a bad time for the hosts, checking their momentum, and having been completely outplayed in the first half, Lincoln were a different proposition after the break.

They were always going to be, and red-and-white hearts were in mouths when Regan Poole headed against the underside of the crossbar five minutes after the break.

That was a warning for the Wearsiders, but it went unheeded. When Jorge Grant swung over another corner six minutes later, Hopper peeled off Wyke to head home from the edge of the six-yard box.

Suddenly, Lincoln were resurgent and Sunderland were rocking, and the Imps were handed a golden opportunity to effectively put the game to bed when Josh Scowen brought down a turning Connor McGrandles in the area midway through the second half. Grant stepped up to the spot, but Lee Burge made a superb save as he flung himself to his right.

The Black Cats needed one more chance, but when it arrived with eight minutes left, they were unable to take it. Wyke nodded the ball down for McGeady, but he drilled his low shot against the base of the left-hand post.