OK. So you’re 2-1 up with seconds left to play in a game that, by common consensus, was a must win. You haven’t played brilliantly, but your Northern Irish striker, in the team at last, has bagged two goals and has put you on the brink of victory.
Do you: A) play it smartly, see the game out, and take three precious points? Or B) switch off, fail to defend the throw-in, and allow an ex-Sunderland striker to grab an equaliser that deprives you of victory, and potentially torpedoes your promotion challenge?
The answer, of course, is A. We all know that. But Sunderland, being Sunderland, couldn’t resist choosing option B, thereby throwing two priceless points away, leaving the Gillingham contingent elated and the red and white hordes in various states of dismay, anger, and disbelief. Once again, we’d somehow choked when the game was there to be won, and much profanity followed.
We can talk about individual performances, a lack of ‘bottle’, and Phil Parkinson’s increasingly stubborn approach to selection, but if you strip it down the mathematics of the situation are simple. Two points from the last nine.
That is not acceptable for a team with aspirations of Championship football. We got out of jail against Fleetwood, didn’t turn up at all against Coventry, and now we’ve come unstuck yet again. Our promotion challenge is wobbling, and you get the sense that another poor result could bring the whole thing crashing down. Why does this team have such a weakness when it comes to games against fellow promotion hopefuls?
On balance, a draw might have actually been a fair result. In the first half, Sunderland struggled to get going, and chances were few and far between. We tried to play with width wherever possible, but the accuracy of our final ball, from Luke O’Nien and Denver Hume, simply wasn’t there. Gillingham weren’t shining themselves, and it was difficult to see where the breakthrough was coming from.
The second half started in a more positive fashion. We showed more purpose and attacking intent, culminating with Lafferty’s first goal, but for some reason, we failed to kick on afterwards, letting Gillingham back into the game with some shoddy penalty-area defending and allowing Mikael Mandron to prod home the scruffiest of equalisers.
That familiar sense of frustration and anxiety was back again, before George Dobson played a beautiful pass for Lafferty to slide the ball home for what should’ve been the winner.
If I can dare to be positive in the wake of such a sickening result, this game did provide clear evidence that Lafferty should now be our starting striker, fitness permitting. As well as his two goals, both of which were well taken, his all-round play was effective, and he brought a dynamism to our attack that was lacking when Charlie Wyke was leading the line.
With nine games left, it is time to build the the attack around the former Rangers striker, and the goals will surely come.
Questions? There are plenty of them. Should Lynden Gooch, who isn’t playing anywhere near his best, now be dropped for the lively Antoine Semenyo? Does George Dobson continue to merit a starting berth over Josh Scowen? Why did Gillingham gaffer Steve Evans think that a bodywarmer, blue gloves, and a white dress shirt would make a good combination?
The burning issue of personnel must be addressed soon. The games are running out, as are the opportunities for our January signings to make an impression. It surely wouldn’t be a gamble to change things. It would be a positive and proactive show of faith from Parkinson.
Mentally, I’m now gearing myself up for the play-offs.
Automatic promotion now appears to be a very distant prospect, and it looks increasingly as though our potential route back to the Championship entails an extra three matches, concluding with a trip to The Graveyard of Sunderland Dreams, Wembley. We’ve been playing catch-up for months, and you do fear that Sunderland’s batteries are beginning to go flat at just the wrong time. Perhaps it’s not quite done and dusted, but getting our hands on that treasured prize of Championship football just got a lot harder.