Sunderland’s automatic promotion hopes are potentially all-but-over as they dropped another three points by losing 2-1 to Cheltenham Town at the Jonny Rocks Stadium on Tuesday night.
The Black Cats were in the driving seat at the half-time interval, through Alex Pritchard’s marvellous free-kick, but in the second half, they simply were unable to deal with Cheltenham’s pressure, as goals from Elliot Bonds and Alfie May proved to be the killer blow.
Before Tuesday, the Robins hadn’t won since mid-November, since their 2-0 victory over Gillingham, but they cashed in on Sunderland’s hideous worries perfectly.
After Saturday there was pressure on Mike Dodds to make changes to the starting 11, and so he did, with five in total. That included first starts for Jack Clarke, Jay Matete and Trai Hume, whilst there was no Thorben Hoffmann in the travelling squad, with rumours that the goalkeeper was unavailable with illness.
It was a fairly even opening few exchanges between both sides, but Sunderland just about had the upper hand, and it was the Black Cats who carved open the first opportunity.
Jack Clarke created that opening as he was able to dispossess Charlie Raglan, before narrowly firing his shot wide of the right post.
Clarke was proving instrumental in the final third areas for the away side, and almost like the creative spark that Sunderland have been lacking in their last couple of matches.
Not long after his first chance he teed up Ross Stewart, whose header cannoned off the crossbar, but the Scotsman was adjudged to have been in an offside position.
The Black Cats were attempting to establish their pressing game in stages, and as the first half progressed, Mike Dodds’ side slowly managed to grow further into proceedings.
Pritchard’s weak effort rolled into the gloves of Owen Evans, before Corry Evans’ effort drifted narrowly wide of the left post.
A rather pedestrian first 32 minutes between two sides out of confidence and form sparked into life in superb circumstances by Alex Pritchard.
A superb free-kick from just over 20 yards out dipped over the wall and dropped brilliantly into the top right corner - 0-1.
Suddenly, Sunderland grew in confidence and had a spring in their play - and they should have doubled their advantage only moments later, as Dajaku’s header was magnificently tipped over the bar by the Cheltenham goalkeeper.
After the half-time interval the Robins looked marginally better, and as they applied more pressure onto the Sunderland backline, they looked more hesitant and shaky.
Michael Duff’s side utilised their physicality well all over the pitch, but when Charlie Raglan’s long ball forward wasn’t dealt with it proved to be a recipe for disaster as Elliot Bonds’ shot took a hefty deflection and looped over Patterson - 1-1.
Sunderland needed to react, and within minutes of the equaliser, Ross Stewart’s effort was smashed against the side-netting, but it was the home side who looked most likely to take control.
Cheltenham grew, and began to pile the pressure onto the Black Cats, and the away side couldn’t deal with it. Yet again, it was another long ball forward that causes Sunderland all their problems, as Kion Etete held the ball up well, before feeding Alfie May, who brilliantly smashed his effort past a diving Anthony Patterson - 2-1.
For some, the introduction of Jermain Defoe was too little, too late, as the striker was forced to chase the match for the Black Cats - something that simply isn’t in his inventory.
He played his part in trying to pull the match back level, but his effort from just inside of the area was fired straight into the gloves of Evans.
Time was ticking away for Sunderland, and ultimately their frustrations were growing massively, and despite five minutes of added time, it was another massive three points dropped for the Black Cats.
Surely, Sunderland’s problems can’t get much worse than this?
Yet again, fans are left with a plethora of questions, and at the moment, very few answers. And that’s ultimately what’s worrying for supporters.
The club has little direction, other than heading further down the League One table. The head coach search continues to drag onto a second week; the situation of where that process is at is unknown, the range of managers on the club’s radar, also unknown.
The Black Cats are 11 points off table-toppers Rotherham, with the Millers having a game in hand over the Wearsiders - suddenly, just over a month after their 5-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland’s automatic promotion hopes are arguably all but over.
As the head coach search ticks on, the time for the new man to make a difference is becoming very shortened, so the quicker this process is completed, the better.
Sunderland’s complete capitulation in the space of just over a week is simply indescribable, but to put it into simpler terms, the Black Cats need stability, and quick.