Another absolute sickener. More precious points dropped, automatic promotion appearing a more remote prospect, and surely Phil Parkinson, barring an absolute thumping of Fleetwood, is now all but finished as Sunderland manager.
This was a game we simply had to win, but only leaving the Keepmoat Stadium with a point, after being in front for such a long time, felt like a defeat.
Even before the game kicked off, things were less than upbeat. The team sheet had a somewhat deflating inevitability to it, with Elliot Embleton and Jack Diamond deemed once again only worthy of a place on the bench, and Charlie Wyke recalled to lead the line.
It seems that Phil Parkinson’s freeze-out of Aiden McGeady, supposedly to offer younger players a pathway to the first team, was as hollow a statement as you could ever hear.
Parkinson’s lack of tactical flexibility and adaptability is one thing, but his total lack of belief in our younger players is borderline unforgivable. This is not, by the way, a cheap dig at the players selected, merely an observation that, with some more verve, this team could be so much better than it currently is.
The debate over selection aside, the players still had a job to do, and in the early stages of the first half they didn’t disgrace themselves - but they didn’t exactly turn on the style, either.
Against a well-drilled Doncaster team, for whom Southampton loanee Josh Sims turned in a neat and tidy performance, we couldn’t really get anything going in an attacking sense, and clear-cut chances were scarce.
An early header from Luke O’Nien sailed over the bar and a shot from Chris Maguire was gathered by after some decent work from Conor McLaughlin, but that was about the sum total of action around the Doncaster goalmouth. At the other end, Remi Matthews wasn’t exactly under siege either, and when Lynden Gooch was denied what seemed like a certain penalty after being crudely hacked down, the obligatory ‘League One referee makes a huge error’ box was ticked as well.
As the half progressed, we began to move the ball more incisively and with more zip, but in the attacking third, it was a tale of major frustration. Both Denver Hume and McLaughlin played some very good balls into the box, but too often no Sunderland player was there to reap the benefits.
Charlie Wyke in particular missed a glorious chance, appearing to be caught ball-watching and trying to claim a foul, when he really should’ve attacked the ball in full-blooded fashion.
Without capitalising on the possession and the good build-up play the frustration was growing, but the breakthrough finally came on the stroke of half-time when Grant Leadbitter summoned the spirit of Southampton away in 2007, and slammed an absolutely glorious strike into the top corner from twenty-five yards out.
Breakthrough made, and we went into the break visibly lifted by a moment of genuine brilliance from a player who has enjoyed a major revival this season.
In the second half, Doncaster began to play with greater intent, and Sunderland found themselves being tested far more than they had been. Matt Smith sent a shot whistling past Matthews’ left hand post, and Fejiri Okenabirhie had a shot comfortably saved. Sunderland had chances to make the game safe, with Joe Lumley making a very smart save from Gooch, and it seemed as though we would hold out for a victory that would’ve propelled us to within snapping distance of our fellow automatic promotion-chasers.
Unfortunately, the 1-0 lead, coupled with Sunderland’s inability to close games out, proved to be a recipe for another sour ending. With thirty seconds left, a defensive lapse allowed Okenabirhie to prod the ball home for the equaliser, robbing us of a crucial victory, and leaving Parkinson open to a barrage of questions.
Why was Elliot Embleton only given ten minutes?
Why was our game management so poor?
Why does the team have a nasty habit of caving under pressure? Judging by his meek and frankly embarrassing post-match interview, he seems to be no closer to finding the answers.
Sunderland’s season is now on a precipice, and I firmly believe that only a change of manager - coupled with the completion of the protracted takeover - will be enough to restore optimism to the red and white hordes.
Right now, there is precious little to be excited about at our club. Standards are dropping, mediocrity is being normalized and accepted, and whichever way you slice it, we are no further forward than we were when Parkinson arrived.