Paddy Madden’s second-half strike and Ashley Eastham’s winner at the death condemns Sunderland to the League playoffs as they threw away three points at Fleetwood Town.
Despite completely controlling the first-half at the Highbury Stadium and leading through Lee Cattermole, Jack Ross’ men lost, paying the price for a lacklustre second-half showing.
Clinical finishing from the Joey Barton’s team and a baffling lack of second-half intensity cost Sunderland as they came out second-best after half-time.
Most of the visitors best chances fell to a wasteful Will Grigg, while the Black Cats were too sloppy and uninterested in scoring a game-settling second after half-time.
The Mackems remain fourth and cannot catch Luton Town or Barnsley with one game remaining.
Sunderland settled immediately at the Highbury Stadium and could have led inside 15 minutes, if Max Power had finished more decisively.
The ex-Wigan man tried to stroke home from the penalty shot, but his weak effort was too close to goalkeeper Alex Cairns who got his body behind the ball. Power was well found in space by Lewis Morgan who got in behind the Cod Army defence after a clever exchange with Luke O’Nien.
Will Grigg beat Cairns with a wonderful curling effort, unfortunately the Northern Ireland international’s strike cannoned off the bar. This time Power cut open the Fleetwood defence, finding Lynden Gooch, who set up Grigg just inside the Town area.
For all the confidence the visitors were displaying going forward they were guilty of several metal lapses defensively. Ashley Nadesan nearly capitalised on a lack of concentration from Tom Flanagan, but his close-range shot was blocked away by Jon McLaughlin at the near post.
Just after the half-hour mark Sunderland had the goal their domination warranted. Cattermole glanced in Lewis Morgan’s powerful in-swinging corner from the near-post. The sheer pace of the cross and accuracy of Cattermole’s flick left Cairns with no chance as the ball raced into the far corner.
The hosts uppped the intensity after the break particularly in trying to press Jack Ross’ men, but despite Fleetwood’s best efforts neither side created many clear chances straight after the re-start.
The game became scrappy with both sides lacking quality in the final third and slowing the game down with cynical fouls.
The first time Fleetwood managed to get to the Sunderland byline they punished the promotion hopefuls. Lewie Coyle’s simple cutback caught the Sunderland back four napping and Madden blasted in from close-range.
The final fifteen minutes were end-to-end, with the hosts sensing a chance to steal a winner. Fleetwood’s goal also finally reawakening Sunderland who found an urgency that was missing from their play after half-time.
Nadesan nearly deflected a Morgan corner in at the near-post as Sunderland poured on late pressure to keep their automatic promotion hopes alive.
With seconds remaining Eastham rose highest to head in a Fleetwood corner meaning Sunderland lost a game they could have been out of sight in, had they been more clinical in the first-half and focused after the break.
Jon McLaughlin, 6/10: Made one telling save, helpless to close range goals.
Luke O’Nien, 7/10: Played a big role in Sunderland’s fast start and made intelligent decisions in the final third throughout.
Tom Flanagan, 5/10: The main weak link, never looked comfortable in possession.
Alim Ozturk, 7/10: Played well outside of some suspect second-half passes.
Bryan Oviedo, 6/10: Combined well with his midfield teammates, but the Costa Rica international was guilty of switching off defensively and leaving space for Fleetwood to attack on the counter.
Max Power, 7/10: Created a lot of Sunderland’s best chances and supported his attacking teammates well throughout.
Lee Cattermole, 8/10: Beyond his goal, this was an excellent showing from Cattermole, he dictated play well and provided the foundation for a controlling first-half performance.
Lynden Gooch, 6/10: Still lacks his early season swagger, did combine well with Maguire and O’Nien in patches.
Lewis Morgan, 7/10: Lively throughout, showcased instant chemistry with Chris Maguire and he layed on Cattermole’s goal.
Chris Maguire, 7/10: Switched play well, and found space in dangerous areas from minute one.
Will Grigg, 5/10: Wasteful in front of goal.
(SUB) Kazaiah Sterling, 6/10: Pressed relentlessly and forced the Town backline into nervous mistakes.
(SUB) George Honeyman, 5/10: Struggled to impact the game.
Man of the match: Lee Cattermole