Inside Sunderland's wretched night at Scunthorpe and the alarming questions it raises
Phil Parkinson said it was a contentious decision, but the move itself came as no surprise.
Abo Eisa has not been a regular at Scunthorpe United this season, a team struggling at the bottom end of League Two, a club struggling with the transition from a disappointing relegation.
Yet here he was irrepressible. Perhaps the decision to award the penalty was harsh but it was far from the first time he had powered into a dangerous area.
It happened plenty of times after that, too.
Eisa played with a verve and drive absent in his opposition numbers.
That summed up this utterly wretched night, the kind that poses questions about all aspects of where a club is headed.
Right now, ‘backwards’ is the only answer that can be offered with any conviction.
That the leasing.com trophy comes way down Sunderland’s list of priorities is an open secret, but that only tells a part of the story and on this night, could not be offered up as mitigation.
Assistant manager Steve Parkin had been clear on Monday, the second half against Gillingham had not been good enough and a strong side would be named at Scunthorpe, a response required and demanded.
Parkinson backed those words up by fielding a side that was virtually at full strength.
His goal this season is promotion and remains the case, but after just two wins in his first seven games, it was a selection that showed just how much he wanted a result.
That record was without doubt a harsh reflection of the performance levels his players have generally produced, particularly the core group he has settled on for league fixtures.
Yet in key areas, particularly in the final third, there has not been much, if any, uplift since the departure of Jack Ross.
They have looked a top-six side rather than a top-two side and here, they looked a million miles from either.
Their League Two opposition looked structured, determined and threatening where they were insipid. To get such little reaction is a concern.
For his part, Parkinson was determined to present a balanced and forgiving assessment after the game.
His first comment was that Luke O’Nien should have had a penalty just minutes into the game, and there he certainly had a point.
While heavily critical of the two goals that turned a poor result into something of a humiliation, he also pointed to an ever-growing injury list and international call-ups as a factor.
Joel Lynch battled through the first half with a hamstring problem before being replaced at half-time, Laurens De Bock forced to play out of position.
Lee Burge played despite not having fully recovered from a hip problem and Jordan Willis is set for an injection in his patellar tendon on Wednesday.
After O’Nien’s red card, Max Power ended up at right-back and could well have seen red himself for a poor challenge on Eisa. It was that kind of night and Parkinson was keen to present a composed view (that Sunderland’s best academy talents weren’t deemed able to step into those roles is a concern, but perhaps one for another day).
His overall assessment was jarring with what an utterly alarming final 20 minutes, though he did acknowledge that his players had ‘felt sorry for themselves’ after going a goal down, just days after he urged them to be ‘stronger’ in dealing with adversity within games.
It felt like two things were at play here.
One, perhaps a desire to protect the players who had been subject to chants of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ after the third goal, a cross not stopped, a header lost. Simple and soft.
Parkinson said those chants were ‘understandable’ and quite right too. To travel here on this night, in this season, it’s hard to present a better picture of loyalty than that.
It was a significant moment, though, because for all the frustration with last season, the draws, the defending, the lost leads, one thing that was never questioned was the resilience and application of a group that ‘got it’, if nothing else than a breath of fresh air after what had passed through in the years before.
The nature of some of the defeats in recent weeks have been altogether more alarming than anything we saw last year and Parkinson’s message of unity was telling.
He will not that he has to tread a fine line between forging a spirit behind the scenes, but making clear that nights like this and the goals shipped can never be accepted or explained away.
It is clear, too, that he is itching to get to the January window to correct what he sees as a chronic lack of power and drive in the final third.
It’s an assessment that will seem odd to neutrals given the stature and experience at this level in Sunderland’s forward line, but one that almost all who have watched the team would share.
This really is the heart of the issue, laid bare on this wretched night.
Parkinson’s arrival, and the sacking of Ross, was predicated on an assessment that this team and this squad should be riding high in League One.
It was a shift of direction, a gamble and a call that threatened to push Sunderland back towards a cycle so damaging in the past, taken in the belief that it was shortcomings in the dugout to blame for stasis on the pitch.
So far, the logic does not look sound.
With the heavy scrutiny on Ross gone, the structural issues that have led to this point of stagnation have been laid bare and the club does not look to be in a stronger position than last season. The squad most certainly is not and that jars when the ambition was for 100 points and the heartache of Wembley to be banished.
Even if the investment from FPP allows for some overdue attention to areas such as recruitment and the academy, it may not impact what is turning into a challenging campaign.
A lot of ground needs to be made up from a challenging summer and that starts at the top.
At a talk-in with supporters shortly after his departure, Ross reflected on Sunderland’s run in this competition last season.
It had been widely acknowledged as ultimately counter productive, a fixture backlog hurting the side in the final stretch of the season.
Ross felt as much but joked that it had not really been by design. Particularly in the group stages, he fielded fringe players and academy talents. They just kept winning.
Perhaps it is a little crude but that seems to reflect so much of where this club was then and where it is now.
Then, a resilience, unity and momentum. A team and club that found ways to win.
The contrast now is obvious.
Parkinson remains outwardly relaxed. He has genuinely been enthused by the attitude of the core of the group he has inherited, feels he has firepower in his ranks once injuries have cleared and has been assured of backing in January.
No matter how bad this looked, felt and was, the season is clearly not a lost cause and not by a long shot.
But make no mistake, it will take leadership and investment to turn it into the one promised.
From the top, some unifying work needs to be done with the bonds fraying as supporters’ understandable concerns grow.
Was this a new low? Well, the simplest thing to say is that if you have to keep asking yourself the question, something has to change.
This simply has to be the nadir.