The month of April doesn’t like Sunderland. Past lowlights around this key time of the season include Sunderland 4-5 Coventry City, Fleetwood Town 2-1 Sunderland and, of course, the Burton Albion induced relegation. You can now safely add Saturday’s Charlton defeat and Wigan’s completed double against us onto that list of shame.
There was a hint this wasn’t going to be our night before the whistle blew as Connor McLauglin was injured in the warm up. If we’re being kind (God knows, someone needs to try), the change disrupted Lee Johnson’s plans.
On paper, late addition to the starting XI Bailey Wright should have made for a strong defence when partnered with in-form Dion Sanderson and Luke O’Nien. Denver Hume should have further strengthened a back line that had begun to show signs of creaking. Yet somehow our inept disorganisation at the back is an unwelcome talking point once more.
Most of the opportunities Wigan had either came on the counter or from set plays. This latter vulnerability has suddenly materialised in our performances and is about as welcome as Carl Boyeson and Karl Robinson are at WiseMenSay HQ.
League One referees
We actually started positively, controlling the early stages of the game with good possession and attacking intent. There was a penalty shout just after the ten-minute mark (although this was largely demonstrated through the medium of mime, as Wigan didn’t fix their pitch side audio until the second half).
O’Nien looked to be on the receiving end of a high boot to the face from Wigan’s Will Keane and a penalty should’ve been given. Another poor refereeing decision in League One will hardly surprise those who’ve had even a cursory eye on proceedings over the last several seasons. Referee Gavin Ward was rather lenient on Wigan’s persisting fouling in the early exchanges too. Ward’s yellow card looked to be in the same place as his ability – hidden.
Of course, there was still plenty of time to impose ourselves on the game after that, and it frankly didn’t happen. The Lads struggled to deal with Viv Solomon-Otabor down the wing and pushing high up the pitch early in the game meant O’Nien was left to deal with him on his own. It wasn’t O’Nien’s best game if we’re honest. But it’s harsh to single him out when he has been tremendous this season and so many others in red and white were poor.
Automatic promotion is a fickle mistress
During that early positivity Charlie Wyke emerged from his dry spell, got his goal and everything looked rosy. The Aiden McGeady and Wyke double act struck once more. A peach of a cross from Sunderland’s number 28 was met with the side foot of Big Chaz.
We once again stared confidently at automatic promotion, and automatic promotion gave us a coy wink in return. Shortly afterwards, the game got away from us. Automatic promotion can be a fickle mistress.
A quick word on Jordan Jones: poor. Jones needlessly lost possession by retaining the ball for too long and not simply running into space when it was the better option. The Jones that performed against Portsmouth appears to have returned to Rangers, leaving Frances de la Tour’s Miss Jones, of Rising Damp fame, in his place.
Will Keane’s equaliser was a horrendous goal to concede, coming just before the break. A free header came down from an in-swinging corner, O’Nien couldn’t deal with Keane, and the latter stroked the ball home. It was a real body blow, but it had been coming. Sunderland had allowed Wigan to get a foothold back into the game and the anxiety across the back four seemed to provide them with the impetus to keep returning for more chances.
If you thought that the Lads would emerge like roaring lions ready to grasp the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half then, well, bless you.
Wigan carried on where they left off and Callum Lang scored the winner just before the hour mark. Once again the defending wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Lang stood alone like an island in the Sunderland box, nothing around him but the cold waters we seem so keen to drown ourselves in.
Lee Johnson rang the changes. God, the changes. Four simultaneous substitutions. Playing devil’s advocate, Johnson had to do something. From those tasked with turning the game around Lynden Gooch stood out. He avoided the trap of trying to repeatedly beat the same man, which he is sometimes guilty of. Instead he was direct and delivered dangerous balls into the box. Sadly, nothing came of any.
Ross Stewart disappointed. At six-feet five-inches he’s perfectly built for getting on the end of crosses in the box as a game is petering out. Imagine then, if you can, the bewilderment of seeing him actually taking a corner instead of being on the end of it. Grant Leadbitter and Callum McFandzean completed the set but couldn’t really impose themselves on a match which had implosion written all over it by this point.
A deep psychological blow
Overall it was an unacceptable performance by Sunderland at a crucial moment in the season – and was also one of the fabled games in hand. Phil Parkinson cost us any leeway for dropping points in the run-in, but the poor quality of this performance, especially in the second half, has to sit squarely at the feet of the current group.
Taking a breath, there will be further twists and turns yet to come. Both Hull and Peterborough will likely stutter between now and the end of the season. However, in the context of our past, it feels like this recent downfall shows the re-emergence of a worrying pattern. That surely makes this latest defeat a greater psychological blow.
In a must-win game, we lost.