Inside the dismal afternoon Sunderland's season hit a new low and what has to happen next

Phil Smith analyses Sunderland's heavy defeat to Blackburn Rovers on Easter Monday
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Not for the first time, the final whistle blew with a sea of red-and-white seats already visible. Not the first time and not surprisingly, thousands had already decided that they had better things to do. 

Sunderland have delivered some abject performances of late but this was a new low, carved open time and time again by a Blackburn Rovers side who came into the game winless in nine and fighting for their Championship future. 

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How did it come to this? A year ago Sunderland’s home form was indifferent, true enough, but Wearside bubbled and fizzed with positivity and excitement about their young team. The supporters keep coming back in the hope of a revival, but time and time again they are seeing an operation that is simply not equipped right now to challenge for the upper reaches of the Championship table.

Mike Dodds was incandescent after the game, blasting his players for the performance they had delivered. They had started relatively brightly, albeit without really testing the opposition player, but after that they had become careless and complacent. After conceding two soft goals, he felt they had felt sorry for themselves. It was truly abject fare as Blackburn consistently showed greater intensity and desire both in the challenge and on the break, waiting for Sunderland to overplay and then flooding the box. It is a charge very rarely if ever levelled at a Sunderland side over the last couple of years but watching on, it felt fair to question the application and desire. The win over Cardiff and some of the free-flowing football within it highlighted the upside of Sunderland’s strategy and focus on youth, and perhaps the poor habits they slipped into 48 hours later highlighted the downside. 

Dodds said the reflection and ‘uncomfortable’ discussions in the days ahead would include himself and undoubtedly, this was a day where his key calls did not come off. While the decision not to give a 16-year-old Chris Rigg two starts in four days as he adjusts to the rigours of Championship football made sense, Patrick Roberts looked well short of match sharpness as he played his first competitive football in nearly two months from the start. And while the second-half changes added some craft and guile at the top of the pitch, they did little to address the chasm of space that Blackburn continued to enjoy. 

These are experiences that will stand Dodds, a coach who has the respect of the players and has played a key part in many of their development, in fine stead for his future career whether that be in the dugout or on the training pitches. They do not help Sunderland in the here and now, where the lack of experience across the board now looks like a chasm. One of Tony Mowbray’s most underrated qualities was his calm leadership, his ability to motivate and protect a young group and ride the inevitable highs and lows of the Championship campaign. While the cracks behind the scene were becoming increasingly apparent from his public comments in the final weeks of his tenure, his steady hand did much to keep Sunderland’s brave but risky strategy on the rails. Dodds has had some rotten luck with injuries and suspension along the way but the dugout switch has, again, not worked.

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While few would have predicted this performance after the step forward taken in South Wales on Friday, it’s not an afternoon that you could say came from nowhere and that speaks to the wider issues that both Dodds and his two predecessors have faced.

Sunderland continue to labour in the final third and while Jobe Bellingham’s outstanding performance at Cardiff City showed his potential promise, at his age and with his experience it is never going to come off every game. Just as significantly, Sunderland’s long-term reluctance to sign a player in the mould of Corry Evans continues to see them yield too much space on the break. This was an afternoon in which Sunderland were overrun and outfought in the middle of the pitch and while there will understandably be criticisms of the individuals involved, at what stage do you simply have to say that they are not equipped for more defensive roles in a league of this intensity - and most certainly not every single week at this stage of their career? 

Sunderland had a chance to correct both of these issues in the January window but did not do so. While Romaine Mundle has shown flashes of talent and could be a good acquisition for the club in the long term, it was not a window that has improved the team. The same can be said of the decision to dismiss Mowbray, which some did feel was the right decision but held that view on the assumption that Sunderland were well placed to deliver a high-calibre successor capable of building on the good work.

Instead, the team enjoys less control over games, plays less aesthetically-pleasing football, creates far fewer chances and does so without much in the way of tangible defensive improvement. The club hierarchy’s obsession with progression has, unfortunately, on this occasion come to look like hubris. 

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The sound of Blackburn Rovers fans high in the North Stand ‘Oléing’ as their side revelled in a four-goal advantage should ring in the ears of those in charge as they move towards a summer in which they simply have to correct the mistakes of the previous months.

Sometimes, you wonder if the significance of this losing run is truly understood and appreciated, for up until this point there has been little public recognition of just how poor things have been on and off the pitch of late.

Sunderland fans have rightly praised and given due credit to the decision making that transformed an average League One squad into one of the most exciting, dynamic young teams in the country - doing so while overhauling its profile to build a value that offers hope of genuine financial stability in the years ahead.

Of late, however, following Sunderland has been a joyless experience and it has left many genuinely pondering their desire to return for next season. While the principles of the strategy and the logic behind it in football’s dismal financial climate are mostly understood and accepted even if a little reluctantly, it is simply not sustainable for a club of this size to be uncompetitive at this level. Even if there are some mitigating circumstances as to why, that is exactly what they have been since the turn of the year. 

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The club’s ownership is approaching a crossroads, the belief in their project and most importantly their ability to execute it openly questioned more than at any stage since their arrival. 

This was Sunderland’s worst afternoon of the season to date and unfortunately, the bar to clear had become a fairly high one. The only possible positive that could come from it would be if it underlines the need behind the scenes for change and significant improvement. This felt like a logical conclusion to months of poor decisions, a position of relative promise undone almost entirely. 

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