Lee Johnson on the ‘massive’ advantage Sunderland will have in the play-off semi-final

Lee Johnson believes the return of fans to the Stadium of Light could hand Sunderland a ‘massive’ advantage in the play-offs.

Despite disappointment at missing out on a top two finish, the Black Cats’ promotion hopes remain very much alive with last weekend’s win at Plymouth Argyle securing a play-off spot.

With one play-off spot still up for grabs, and the finishing order yet to be settled, Sunderland will not discover their semi-final opponents until after tomorrow’s final round of fixtures.

But whoever they face, with the League One play-offs due to start on May 18 – the day after the Covid restrictions are eased – the expectation is that up to 10,000 home fans will be permitted to watch each leg of the semi-finals, and potentially 10,000 fans from each club could be present at Wembley for the final.

The Covid situation has meant that Sunderland fans have not seen their team in action since March last year, and with Johnson only taking over as head coach on Wearside in December he has yet to oversee a game in front of a crowd.

Assuming there is no last-minute change of plan, that will change in the play-offs and Johnson is excited by that prospect.

“I think the play-offs will be exciting, and even more so because we can get some fans in the building and I’m really looking forward to that,” he said.

“It’s the best way to go up – if you win! – there’s no doubt about that, and that’s what our aim is.

“Having the fans in is massive – it could be absolutely huge.

“Although there will only be 1,000 Sunderland fans there, because there will be about 9,000 Johnsons in the stadium!

“That’s how many tickets requests I’ve had already.

“Seriously though, that’s what is exciting me most about the play-offs, having that buzz again that the fans create and which we can’t reproduce without them.

“I think I would literally cry if someone said we couldn’t play the play-offs in front of fans!

“Even going to the away leg, where our fans probably won’t be allowed, I’m even looking forward to that kind of gladiator’s arena environment where it will be us against the world and we have to go and do the business.

“You have to embrace the challenge and know that we have all this support that we haven’t been able to use anywhere near as much as we would want this season.

“I know sometimes people say it can be a negative in terms of the pressure, but I don’t see it as that at all.

“We all have one goal and one aim, and that’s to drive the club forward.”

Johnson has managed at the Stadium of Light in front of fans before, when he was in charge of Bristol City but the contrast between that occasion and the atmosphere he wants to generate could hardly be greater.

It was late October 2017 when City ran out 2-1 winners, and there was already a black cloud hanging over Wearside with Sunderland next-to-bottom of the Championship having won only one of their first 14 league games under Simon Grayson – who would be sacked just days later following a draw at home against basement side Bolton.

Johnson said: “A big part of my decision to come to this football club was because of the fans.

“I didn’t really see it [the support], if I’m honest with you, when I managed Bristol City against Sunderland.

“I’d heard about it, but in that particular game for whatever reason – it was cold, windy, there were about 25,000 there and not 35,000, Bristol won 2-1.

“So one of my big desires was to come to Sunderland and experience it properly.”

Having fans back at the stadium for the play-offs could give Sunderland an edge, and Johnson says the club will look at ways to maximise any potential advantage.

“I think there’s a consideration about where we place the fans,” he said.

“I’m just talking offhand here, but I wouldn’t really want everybody spread around all over the gaff, you want to try and condense it as much as possible – within the rules, obviously – so we can feel that power as close to the pitch as possible.

“Even that becomes tactical on how that is going to work.

“The fans that do come in, I hope they will be super-vocal and I’m sure they’ll have had enough time off to be able to warm up their vocal chords and get going.”

With a stadium that seats almost 50,000, there could be some latitude as to how to position fans while complying with social distancing rules, and one idea might be to allow fans to change seats at half-time so that Sunderland are playing towards their supporters in both halves.

“It’s not a bad shout,” said Johnson.

“I’ll take any advantage, any ideas that might benefit us.

“When I used to play in non-league, it was class – fans used to be able to swap ends at half-time!

“I don’t know whether that will be possible in the play-off semi-final, but certainly it’s something we can consider in-house.”

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