Sunderland’s winless run extended to three matches in Sky Bet League One as they dropped two points against ten-man Accrington Stanley at the Wham Stadium, despite leading with only six minutes remaining.
After a quiet first half where neither goalkeeper was really tested, half-time sub Aiden O’Brien made an instant impact as he gave the Black Cats the lead only three minutes after the interval.
The red card for Ross Sykes looked to have made Accrington’s task even more difficult, and it looked like the visitors were heading for a much-needed three points, but they switched off, and John Coleman’s side found the important equaliser through Mitch Clark, courtesy of Matt Butcher’s counter-attack.
It was another big blow for Sunderland, who, after Saturday’s 3-3 draw against Wycombe and Tuesday’s 3-1 defeat to Lincoln, have only picked up two points from their last nine available, but remain in second place after Rotherham’s one-nil defeat to Fleetwood.
It was a starting XI for Sunderland that was arguably back to full-strength; certainly back to the similar standard of three matches ago. Thorben Hoffmann and Leon Dajaku both returned from absences due to COVID-19 to start at the Wham Stadium, but most importantly, Bailey Wright was deemed fit to start and captain the side.
However, it was the home side who made the better start in the opening parts of the contest. Sunderland struggled to gain a foothold in the match, but John Coleman’s side were unable to do much with the pressure in the first half.
The away side carved the first and only major chance of the opening period as Ross Stewart’s header, from Lynden Gooch’s cross, was brilliantly clawed around the right post by Toby Savin.
As the half progressed, Sunderland gained time in possession but struggled with the amount of space they had on the ball, as Accrington did well to frustrate the visitors, but Hoffmann was hardly tested.
Sean McConville’s volley was fired wide of the right post, whilst Colby Bishop’s header was Stanley’s best effort of the half as it drew a brilliant save from the Sunderland goalkeeper, as Hoffmann was forced to tip Bishop’s effort over the bar.
It was a stop-start half where Sunderland weren’t given time to get going after Tuesday night’s defeat, with Embleton’s shot being blazed wide of the left post as a half-time change altered the course of the match, minutes after the interval.
Aiden O’Brien replaced Pritchard at the start of the second half, and only three minutes after his introduction he found the break-through as Accrington switched off.
Doyle was allowed time and space to make inroads forward, before rolling the ball to Aiden O’Brien, whose shot from around 25 yards out deflected off the leg of Michael Nottingham and looped over Savin in the Accrington goal.
Accrington responded with vigour and looked to build pressure onto the Sunderland backline, as Bishop almost responded instantaneously, but his guided header drifted narrowly wide of the left post, before Ethan Hamilton’s violent drive was also sent wide of the left post.
Sunderland’s attacking threat were largely muted in the concluding stages after taking the lead, but when Embleton’s free-kick was whipped dangerously over the bar, you felt that Accrington make Lee Johnson’s side pay for their lack of ruthlessness in front of goal, but the red card to Ross Sykes gave the away side the man-advantage, as well as the strategic one.
But, despite the advantage, it was maybe inevitable how the game would end.
After Dan Neil’s shot was looped into the gloves of the Accrington goalkeeper, Savin began a rapid counter-attack, and combined with Flanagan’s mis-kicked clearance, Butcher was in behind, before squaring the ball to Mitch Clark, who simply rolled the ball into the empty net.
Within the remaining minutes, plus added time, Sunderland pushed bodies forward, but failed to really create anything meaningful, as they were forced to take home a point, despite leading one-nil with six minutes left.
Typical of Sunderland, possibly. A fair result, probably.
And for the third match in the space of a week, Lee Johnson’s side have missed the opportunity to move to the summit of the League One table.
First, a late equaliser denied maximum points against Wycombe last weekend. On Tuesday, Sunderland were second-best from the off and were punished by Lincoln. And on Saturday, Sunderland’s old problems came back into the light, as they failed to keep hold of a one-nil victory to add another score-draw to their tally for their time in League One.
There’s no doubt a team pushing for automatic promotion needs to be holding on in situations like the one that they faced at the Wham Stadium. And on a day where Rotherham dropped points, and Wycombe and Wigan both claimed victories, the sucker-blow at the end proved even more frustrating.
Next weekend’s match with Portsmouth now takes a bigger significance; three points is key as Sunderland look to eradicate this poor streak at its core.
Win and there is pressure off their shoulders and are back on track, but lose and Sunderland will no doubt drop out of the automatic promotion spots, and be dealt another blow.