Inside Sunderland's latest woeful afternoon as baffling approach piles the pressure on Phil Parkinson and Stewart Donald
After a break and a chance to reset, this was supposed to be different.
Time on the training pitch was supposed to produce more intensity, identity and coherence, but Phil Parkinson again found himself having to insist that he remains the right man for the job as the dust began to settle on another woeful afternoon.
Parkinson said he had not heard chants against his management from the away end, joking that those in the press box who did had better hearing than his.
Certainly, it was not the level of vocal disapproval that rang around the Stadium of Light around two weeks ago, but that should not be mistaken for satisfaction.
Apathy sits alongside anger and as Sunderland know only too well, that is a dangerous mix for a football club and it ought to be a major concern for Stewart Donald as he weighs up how to rescue a season that is only heading in one direction.
This was Parkinson’s biggest roll of the dice yet and as such, arguably the most damaging result of his tenure so far.
The Black Cats boss changed his goalkeeper, dropped the club’s best attacking player over the last 18 months (one admittedly struggling for form now) and moved to a more defensive formation in search fo a result.
At 2pm it looked like either a gamble or a statement.
By 5pm, it just looked like more of the same.
This was the third time they had faced Gillingham in a matter of weeks, and yet again they struggled to create, struggled to match the physicality of their opponents and struggled to even get shots away on goal.
The numbers are damning.
Sunderland have now lost seven of their last eight away games in all competitions. The one game they drew, they would ultimately lose a penalty shootout to Oxford United.
Parkinson has been in charge for seven of those contests.
The Black Cats have been knocked out of three cup competitions in his tenure so far, and are averaging just one point-per-game from his seven league fixtures.
Sunderland’s issues are deep rooted, and the departure of Charlie Methven this week further highlighted the structural issues at the club, but the crisis of confidence on the pitch is becoming an ever-growing concern.
After an insipid pair of performances on home turf, Parkinson had welcomed the opportunity to finally work with his players for a prolonged period on the training pitch.
It did not reflect well then, that after a ten-day break, they looked so one-dimensional in the first half at Gillingham.
They had just one shot on target, and should have been two goals behind. The referee had waved play on when Brandon Hanlan’s header looked to have dropped over the line, before Mikael Mandron somehow turned a cross from Hanlan onto the crossbar from a matter of yards out.
Parkinson’s team selection had baffled supporters and their fears were quickly realised in a woeful start to the game.
Duncan Watmore and Aiden McGeady had dropped out of the team, robbing the side of any natural pace and width. The Black Cats boss went with five defenders, and yet Denver Hume, the club’s most threatening attacking full-back, was on the bench.
Will Grigg and Marc McNulty were paired up front, but spent most of their time competing for aerial balls they were never likely to win. It was an easy period for a Gillingham defence rarely stretched, Luke O’Nien marooned deep in midfield and unable to get in any threatening areas.
Parkinson’s selection did bolster Sunderland’s presence in their own box for what was an inevitable bombardment of set pieces and long throws, but it looked like a team picked to try and contain Gillingham rather than expose them.
The manager’s post-match comments, stating that he would ultimately have been satisfied with a point, seemed to underline that.
In the run-up to the game he had reflected on the cup replay at this ground, where Sunderland had battled but created nothing. He had urged them to maintain their levels of commitment but also to make sure they played football and moved the ball around on the floor.
“We went down there [for the replay] with a very depleted side, we were strong, stood up and competed, but we didn't play both sides of the game right,” he said.
“We can't just get involved in a war and a battle, we've got to have the calmness and composure to play, like we did in the first half of the game.
"We went down there missing a lot of players but we need to get both sides of the game right."
The gameplan and selection seemed to contradict that and it was not until the arrival of Charlie Wyke that the Black Cats offered any kind of threat.
Wyke did belatedly begin to allow Parkinson’s shape to threaten the hosts, the forward offering an outlet for his team and bringing those around him into play.
The striker had what looked to be a perfectly good goal ruled out when he stooped at the back post to convert Will Grigg’s excellent cross.
Confusion over the decision continued after the game. Phil Parkinson was under the impression it had been ruled out due to Luke O’Nien being stood in an offside position, while Steve Evans believed O’Nien had been adjudged to have fouled goalkeeper Jack Bonham.
It was a hugely dubious decision during Sunderland’s best spell of the game, and when Gillingham pounced to snatch their last-gasp winner, it came when their threat had seemed considerably diminished.
This was no hard luck story, though. Sunderland left with two of their best attacking players having never got off the bench, punished for their lack of ambition in the first half.
This has been a chastening period for Sunderland and unquestionably, the failings of last summer are catching up with them.
Few would argue now that this is a squad capable of finishing in the top two. The protracted takeover talks of the summer left the club chasing a strong end to the summer window and the work done now looks too little, too late.
Many of last season’s flaws remain in place and of the pitch, Methven’s departure merely underlines a club desperately short of stability and a clear long-term strategy for success.
That the team is capable of more than this is nevertheless unarguable.
At the moment, they barely look like play-off contenders and hoping for an uplift post-January looks like a significant gamble.
Parkinson faces an almighty task to win back supporters, the concerns raised so vocally in the closing stages of the defeat to Burton merely strengthened by this latest defeat.
Sunderland’s season is unravelling and the pressure on Stewart Donald is only going to grow.
So far, his biggest call to date is backfiring.