Sunderland boss Lee Johnson believes clinching a Wembley trip in the Papa John’s Trophy can spur a “resurrection” for the former Premier League giants.
The Black Cats beat League One leaders Lincoln on penalties to reach a second EFL Trophy final in the three seasons they have spent in the third tier.
Sunderland will play League Two side Tranmere on Sunday, 14 March.
“We know the last few years have been negative – this is hopefully the start of the resurrection,” said Johnson, 39.
“I’m just really happy for everybody that it gives us the chance to win some silverware,” he added to BBC Newcastle.
“Unfortunately, it’s without the fans but we know we will have the whole of Sunderland and the surrounding areas behind us in spirit.”
In-form Sunderland striker Charlie Wyke’s header – his 22nd goal of the season – took the semi-final to a shootout after Anthony Scully’s tap-in put Lincoln ahead.
The Black Cats scored all five of their spot-kicks, while Lincoln’s Remy Howarth was the only man to miss from 12 yards, hitting the bar.
Final can be ‘motivation for league’
Sunderland lost the 2019 final to Portsmouth on penalties, having suffered successive relegations from the Premier League and Championship in preceding seasons, and have been beaten on the past seven occasions they have played at Wembley.
Sitting seventh in League One, a point outside the top six, they could have two potential opportunities to exorcise those particular ghosts with the play-offs beckoning but Johnson is not ruling out automatic promotion.
Sunderland are eight points off second-placed Hull but have two games in hand and have lost just three times since ex-Barnsley and Bristol City boss Johnson succeeded Phil Parkinson in December.
He added: “I think we can use the final as motivation for the league as well. If you want to play at Wembley, you’ve got to play well in the league – it’s not a charity.
“When you get a game like that, it builds momentum and belief in what you’re trying to do but mainly the players get the reward at the end of it and they get that carrot of a really big occasion.
“It’s a really tough end to the season with the amount of games and we’ve got to be really clever with our team selection because we want to win them all.
“We know we can win any game in this division. I think we’ve proved that and that consistency of culture and message internally and that force we can create can be really, really powerful.”
After a drab first half, Sunderland were aggrieved about Lincoln’s opener, claiming – correctly, as replays showed – Scully was wrongly awarded a throw-in on the halfway line during the build-up.
But there was still plenty for the Imps to do as Jorge Grant’s diagonal ball picked out Cohen Bramall and he pulled back for Conor McGrandles, whose shot was parried by Lee Burge straight to Scully.
Irked by the perceived injustice, Sunderland rallied as Wyke’s downward header bounced up and over the bar before the Black Cats’ top scorer’s near-post shot was smartly saved by Alex Palmer.
But it was third time lucky for the forward, guiding a header into the bottom corner from a cross by Aiden McGeady, who had set up all four of Wyke’s goals in Saturday’s league win over Doncaster.
Reaction – Sunderland showed ‘real experience’
Lincoln City manager Michael Appleton told BBC Radio Lincolnshire:
“We’ve got a lot of bitterly disappointed players in the dressing room as you can imagine and we will pick them up as quickly as we can because we have more crucial league games coming up.
“I was really proud and delighted the way the lads went about it tonight – I thought for the first half-an-hour, 35 minutes we were in control and looked the better side.
“Having said that I knew coming in at half-time we had a few players who looked a little bit leggy and tired and that’s not like us. We’re going to have make sure we look after the players in between games.
“I suppose Sunderland showed their real experience when it came to penalties – the likes of Max Power, Grant Leadbitter, Chris Maguire, Luke O’Nien going up to take penalties is a clear indication of the quality and experience they have got in their side.”
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