Charlie Wyke became the first Sunderland player to score 30 goals in a season, since Kevin Phillips in 1999/2000, but that was a minor story as Sunderland twice lost the lead against Accrington Stanley in Saturday’s 3-3 draw.
A quick-fire double from Charlie Wyke at the start of the first half did have the Black Cats looking like they would give Accrington another thrashing, but a defensive calamity placed John Coleman’s side level.
This was before Max Power made it 3-2, but a superb free-kick from Sean McConville meant that the spoils were shared, and Sunderland’s automatic promotion dreams are all but over, with Peterborough being able to confirm their promotion on Tuesday night.
After Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw at Hull City, Lee Johnson made three changes, with the most notable coming in defence as Callum McFadzean was dropped to the bench and Denver Hume replaced him in the left-back role. Despite impressing on Tuesday night, Jordan Jones was dropped as Aiden McGeady returned to the starting eleven, whilst Aiden O’Brien came into the side ahead of Grant Leadbitter to play in a more advanced role. Bailey Wright continued to partner Luke O’Nien in the centre of defence, as Max Power kept hold of his right-back spot.
First Half Action
The opening to the game felt like a quick breeze blown past the Black Cats as they began the match brightly, with Josh Scowen’s diversion from Aiden McGeady’s corner deflected wide of the left post in the opening minutes.
It’s a rarity that teams come to the Stadium of Light in League One and attack, but Accrington did and they almost found their reward early on as Dion Charles turned Bailey Wright, found space inside of the penalty area, but fired his shot into the gloves of Lee Burge.
Soon, however, Sunderland found themselves two-goals up. Pressure from Carl Winchester and Aiden O’Brien allowed the ball to drop for Lynden Gooch, who crossed it into the penalty area for Wyke, who nodded it past the Accrington goalkeeper. And his 29th goal of the season was shortly followed by a historic 30th as, yet again, Sunderland’s pressing in the centre of the park reaped rewards.
This time, Josh Scowen intercepted the ball and fed McGeady on the left and, from there, there was one only going to be one result; another cross met by yet another Charlie Wyke tap-in as he poked the ball under Toby Savin at the front post.
The visitors looked confident in their attack, and fired their warning shots, including Adam Phillips’ chest-and-volley, which looped narrowly wide of the left post, and Colby Bishop’s looping header, which required Burge d to claw the Accrington’s striker’s header away from a crowded six-yard box.
Despite those chances, Sunderland should have had the game over and done with before the interval; McGeady’s teasing delivery gliding only inches ahead of Charlie Wyke from only a couple of yards out. Chances aplenty, then, at both ends of the pitch, and perhaps the best chance for the third goal came when Aiden O’Brien broke away, cut inside, but his scuffed shot rolled into the Savin’s gloves.
Half Time - Sunderland AFC 2-0 Accrington Stanley
Second Half Action
Into the second period, then, and Sunderland had another chance to extend their lead to three, came when Gooch’s header was directed over the bar by McGeady’s cross.
After that it was John Coleman’s side who took control of the game, as errors in defence allowed Accrington to gain confidence. The first of their three goals came when Dion Charles slipped the ball past Luke O’Nien for Colby Bishop to casually roll the ball past Burge.
Lee Johnson’s side had lost their momentum, and Stanley should have been level when McConville’s shot from outside of the penalty area was struck against the side-netting.
If Accrington drew level in bizarre and unfortunate circumstances, as a long free-kick from their goalkeeper caused heart of the defence to unravel within in a couple of moments. A clear lack of communication between both O’Nien and Burge lead to the stand-in centre-back nodding the ball past his own stranded goalie, and was Burge unable to scramble back and stop the ball from bobbling into the back of the net.
Even that wasn’t enough to get the Black Cats switched on, and the game was Accrington’s for the taking, but Paul Smyth somehow contrived to miss from a couple of yards out when it seemed easier to score.
Johnson’s substitutions, bringing on Jack Diamond and Jordan Jones, did brighten Sunderland and luckily gained us a third goal, as Diamond broke free and carried the ball forward before laying off Power, whose deflected strike bounced over the Accrington goalkeeper and into the net.
It would have been harsh on John Coleman’s side to come away from the Stadium of Light with nothing, and they didn’t, as Sean McConville’s 30-yard free-kick was whipped over the wall and collided with the bar before dropping over the goal line.
It may have been a different story if McGeady’s injury time effort hadn’t been cleared off the line, but another massive dent in Sunderland’s promotion hopes, as momentum is spilling out, and confidence is extremely low.
Full Time - Sunderland AFC 3-3 Accrington Stanley
On Saturday, we saw echos of Sunderland’s 5-4 defeat to Coventry City two years ago; a goal-fest for the neutral, combined with defensive calamities and a lack of ruthlessness. Although the score and circumstances were different, the end result was still the same, as Sunderland’s automatic promotion dreams were declared all but over. Hull became the first team to clinch automatic promotion at the weekend, with Peterborough likely to become the second on Tuesday night.
In the first half, Sunderland controlled proceedings; their control in the midfield areas was something to be appreciated as Josh Scowen and Carl Winchester drove Sunderland into attacking areas - helping create two of Sunderland’s goals. How could it possibly go wrong?
A crushing second-half allowed Accrington back into a match, where they were very much happy to attack a fragile Sunderland. The defensive calamity was always expected, and has been foreshadowed in the past couple of matches.
Even the Head Coach understands that this is the under-lying issue, and in his post-match interview he explained how “the side seven/eight games ago that looked solid and looked like it was going to keep a clean sheet has just gone”.
Their 2-0 victory over Portsmouth at Fratton Park seems an age ago now, such control and quality in the final third is something that hasn’t been witnessed since. Now the team is possessed by players that are extremely low on confidence and are unable to find the winning combination.
In the early stages on Saturday it was looking like it was going to be another Charlie Wyke masterclass, yet his achievement of 30 goals in a season over-shadowed by the overall performance on the day.
It’s now important that Lee Johnson finds a way to keep the striker within the same mindset ahead of a play-off battle, as without him firing it’s difficult to see how Sunderland are going to emerge victorious from this season’s finale. The key in a play-off campaign is to head into it in a fine vein of form, and Sunderland now have worst form in the league, never mind the top six, so they have to turn their form around if there is any hope of them gaining promotion to the Championship.
And it won’t be easy. Tuesday brings a home match against play-off rival, Blackpool, so Sunderland will need to make sure that they don’t repeat the same form the followed that fateful defeat to Coventry in 2019.
Lee Johnson's post-match thoughts.— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) April 24, 2021
Full interview... pic.twitter.com/yqjRlfa0HH