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Sunderland v Doncaster Rovers - Sky Bet League One

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Despite some promising results, Sunderland’s tank is running dry as a long season takes its toll

“Sunderland’s tank appears to be running dry as a long season is seemingly catching up with us. It does not bode well with sixteen games left to play”, writes Phil West.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The equation is now simple.

FBL-ENG-IRL-FRIENDLY Photo by NICK POTTS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Sixteen games left, of which we need to win thirteen as well as hoping that others slip up - that what we need if we are to secure a passage out of this division without attempting to gain promotion via the dreaded ‘alternative’ route, which I’ll come to in a moment.

Doable? Yes. Likely? No, and at this point, that is regardless of who the new head coach is, be it Roy Keane or someone else.

Sunderland’s margin for error following last month’s 3-1 home defeat to Lincoln was already less than reassuring, and having lost to Bolton & Doncaster during the last seven days we are now going to have to piece together a near-perfect run if we are to overhaul Wigan and Rotherham at the top of the table.

Furthermore, the likes of MK Dons and Oxford are looming large in the rearview mirror as well, leaving us with another problem to deal with as the season starts to enter its final stages.

Of course, there is still a chance that this season might end with our elevation back to the Championship, but after two damaging defeats within the space of a week and the team’s form and confidence absolutely shattered, you wouldn’t bet the house on it, and it’s fair to ask whether many fans might well be gearing themselves up for the buttock-clenching affair that is the playoffs.

Naturally, scepticism and predictions of more failure will be widespread if this is what happens. After all, it was Charlton who pipped us at Wembley in 2019, before Lincoln put an end to our promotion hopes with a 2-1 aggregate victory last spring.

History is not on our side, therefore, and even though February has only just arrived, Sunderland now occupy a familiar space beneath the dotted line of the league’s top two. The tank is clearly starting to run dry, and whereas Wigan and Rotherham look to be on a smooth passage towards second-tier football, we are scraping and spluttering along, looking anything like a promotion-worthy squad.

Suffice it to say, this was not where we would’ve envisioned ourselves last autumn.

In the early weeks of the season, there was genuine promise and belief that this was our time. The nucleus of young players was flourishing and starting to gel as a team, and latterly, when the likes of Alex Pritchard found their form, we looked like the kind of attacking force that could put teams to the sword when in form.

Sunderland v Morecambe - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

The lingering problem, however, has been a paucity of toughness, both mental and physical, that has been our undoing on so many occasions.

Sunderland’s lack of a midfield warrior has been glaring for some time (Jay Matete, so promising during his debut against Doncaster, may go some way towards solving that) and our defensive depth, in the wake of Tom Flanagan’s departure, is alarming. Whether the club has one or two free-agent defenders on the radar, who knows, but that’s undoubtedly what we are hoping for.

Bailey Wright may well return to shore things up, but with confidence so fragile, we are fighting an uphill battle to try and steady the ship. Yes, Callum Doyle could and probably should be taken out of the firing line, which wouldn’t be undeserved, but he’s not the only player currently enduring a bad spell of form.

Bolton Wanderers v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

This squad of players is talented, and they have demonstrated it on several occasions this season when they have maintained a level of performance for ninety minutes and put teams to the sword.

The major problem, however - and this is something that I do feel played a part in Lee Johnson’s firing - is that when we are poor, we are extremely poor. For every Sheffield Wednesday or Cheltenham at home there was a Portsmouth away, and it resulted in a horrible sense of unpredictability from game to game.

There is absolutely no middle ground with this team.

What we’d all give for a run of mundane, routine victories.

Consistency of performance is the cornerstone of any promotion-winning team. Of course, you can have off-days and poor results, but this Sunderland team lacks a crucial ingredient: the ability to grind out victories and to poach points against the odds. Last-minute winners or equalisers aren’t our speciality, and we are not particularly adept at riding out tricky spells during games, when the opposition sense a chance and we need to stand strong.

Whoever takes the reigns, are they going to be tasked with trying to perform a salvage job over the final sixteen league matches? Or are they going to be given the job with a view to another potential League One campaign next season, despite the widely-held view that promotion was a non-negotiable this season?

The epitaphs can’t be written just yet, but the last week, despite some optimism, has had the feel of one of those season-defining periods, where a team starts to flex its muscles or fade away. Sadly, for Sunderland, it has been the latter.

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