WHEN Chris Maguire scored a Stadium of Light hat-trick for Sunderland against AFC Wimbledon in August 2019, he was cheered to the rafters by the home support. Last night, as he left the Wearside turf with his second match-ball, it is safe to say the reaction was somewhat different.

Wearing the all-yellow of Lincoln City, Maguire’s goalscoring heroics prevented Sunderland from returning to the top of the League One table and inflicted a damaging blow to his former club’s promotion hopes. Not content with scoring all three of his side’s goals, he also drew the foul from Carl Winchester that resulted in Sunderland having to play the final half-hour with just ten men.

Driven by an obvious sense of frustration following Lee Johnson’s decision not to extend his Black Cats contract last summer, Maguire made sure his former manager was all too aware of what he is missing. As if his football did not do enough of the talking, he celebrated his first goal by pointedly running straight in front of Johnson and screaming in his ex-boss’ face.

Sunderland’s head coach might not admit it, but he could have done with his own players displaying a similar sense of passion and fight. The Black Cats were lacklustre and lethargic throughout, deservedly slipping to a defeat that ended a ten-game unbeaten run and raised renewed questions about their promotion credentials. Sunderland might remain in second position in the table, but they now played more matches than any other team in League One.

They clearly don’t enjoy playing against Lincoln, with the Imps having ended their promotion hopes last season when they beat them in the play-off semi-finals. Sunderland have regrouped since then, but this was a definite off-day.

Last week’s decision to recall Anthony Patterson, Jack Diamond and Josh Hawkes from their respective loan spells plugged key gaps within the Sunderland squad, and prevented Johnson from having to turn to inexperienced youngsters in the absence of so many of his senior stars. However, this was a night when the Black Cats’ patched-up squad appeared to run out of steam.

Diamond joined Patterson in last night’s starting line-up – Corry Evans was unavailable because of the concussion protocols that kicked in when he suffered a head injury in the weekend draw at Wycombe – and having impressed at Harrogate Town in the first half of the campaign, the 21-year-old clearly felt he had a point to prove on his return to Wearside.

Diamond’s driving runs down the left-hand side provided the rare high points in an otherwise turgid first-half display from the Black Cats, with too many of the home side’s players operating at a pedestrian pace as Lincoln sat back and invited their opponents to try to break them down.

The decision to move Carl Winchester into midfield and station Lynden Gooch at right-back was a perplexing one, robbing Sunderland of Gooch’s aggression in an advanced attacking role and asking Winchester to knit things together at the heart of midfield instead of Elliot Embleton, who was somewhat wasted pushing on down the right. Lee Johnson seemed to admit as much at half-time as he shuffled things around.

The Black Cats boss had to do something at the interval as his side’s first-half performance was as disjointed as anything they have produced this season, with passes repeatedly going astray and, aside from Diamond, players in red-and-white seemingly reluctant to break the lines in order to ask questions of a Lincoln side that had gone eight games without a victory before steadying the ship with a win over Oxford last weekend.

It was the 34th minute before Sunderland recorded their first effort at goal – Ross Stewart heading Dan Neil’s cross goalwards, with Lincoln goalkeeper Josh Griffiths turning the ball around the post – and by that stage, the hosts had fallen behind. Somewhat inevitably, it was Maguire inflicting the damage.

The 32-year-old Scot made 135 Sunderland appearances before Lee Johnson deemed him surplus to requirements last summer, and having been unceremoniously dropped from the starting line-up in the second half of last season, it did not take long for a simmering sense of resentment to bubble to the surface.

Maguire might well have been sent off after just ten minutes last night, lunging into Winchester’s leg after miscontrolling the ball and having to stretch to try to win it back, but referee Jeremy Simpson leniently issued a yellow card rather than a red.

It proved a crucial decision, as shortly after the half-hour mark, Maguire was firing Lincoln into the lead. Tom Flanagan blocked Hakeeb Adelakun’s shot in the area, but the ball rebounded towards Maguire, who lashed a vicious half-volley beyond Patterson’s right hand.

It was a wonderful finish, and sparked a celebration that saw Maguire sprint off down the touchline before cavorting provocatively in front of Johnson, who stood motionless in Sunderland’s technical area. Revenge might be a dish best served cold, but Maguire’s juices were certainly flowing.

Ten minutes later, he was picking himself up off the turf before sprinting away chuckling after Winchester was booked for leaving him in a heap. Having revelled in his nuisance-causing reputation during his time at the Stadium of Light, the wily veteran was more than happy to fill the role of pantomime villain on his return to the ground.

In fairness to Maguire, though, he also delivered an excellent performance, and he was the central figure again as Lincoln deservedly doubled their lead 12 minutes after the interval.

A careless loss of possession left Sunderland short of numbers at the back, with Morgan Whittaker sliding a pass beyond the home defence, enabling Maguire to gallop clear.

Winchester should really have left him to shoot, but he bundled into the back of the striker in a futile attempt to prevent him pulling the trigger.

Simpson was left with the simple decision to issue a straight red card, and while the home fans in the Roker End tried to put Maguire off his stride, the former Black Cat stepped up to slam home his spot-kick.

Trailing by two goals and at a numerical disadvantage, it would have been easy for Sunderland to fold. Instead, they finally added some tempo to their game and, ten minutes after conceding for a second time, they were handed an opportunity to claw their way back into the game with a penalty of their own.

Max Sanders mistimed his sliding challenge as he tried to cut out a ball from the right, catching an onrushing Alex Pritchard in the process.

Stewart’s spot-kick was saved, but while Griffiths threw himself to his left to keep the penalty out, the Lincoln goalkeeper was unable to keep the ball under control. Following up like any good striker should, Stewart was able to stab home from close range and claim his 18th goal of the season.

Suddenly, the tide had turned and Sunderland’s ten men were forcing Lincoln back. Elliot Embleton had a 25-yard shot turned round the post by Griffiths before substitute Denver Hume whistled in a low drive that was deflected just wide.

Pushing men forward was always going to be a risk though, and the Black Cats paid the price as Maguire completed his hat-trick with 15 minutes left. The striker raced clear of the Sunderland backline as he latched onto a long ball, and with Patterson advancing towards him, he clipped a brilliant finish over the goalkeeper and into the net.