Phil Smith's verdict: Phil Parkinson's side aren't even play-off contenders right now and Sunderland have to realise the gravity of the situation

Midway through the second half, Sunderland fans in the Roker End decided to lift their spirits, to remember happier times and without a doubt, make a point about what was on offer in front of them.

Friday, 27th December 2019, 12:06 pm

Kevin Phillips, Niall Quinn, Julio Arca and Gary Rowell all serenaded as Phil Parkinson’s side laboured against Bolton Wanderers.

It was proving to be another deeply dispiriting afternoon.

Early in Parkinson’s tenure, when results had been woeful, the mitigation generally offered was that time on the training pitch was required.

Sign up to our Sunderland AFC newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Jon McLaughlin makes a save during Sunderland's draw with Bolton Wanderers

A chance to get ideas across and work on the things that needed to change if, as was the idea and the vision sold to supporters when Jack Ross was dismissed, Sunderland were to unlock the fine margins that would turn play-off contenders into a top-two side.

There has been plenty of that time of late, the Black Cats so far playing just three games in December.

The improvements are minimal and there remains no obvious pattern of play, no incision in open play and precious little tempo.

If the Black Cats had been unfortunate to see a goal disallowed in the first half, then they had also been immensely fortunate to see Bolton pass up some big openings to take the lead themselves.

At the beginning of the second half Sunderland were listless, a turgid game that looked and felt like one of the countless clashes we have seen here between sides looking nervously over their shoulders in recent years.

Sunderland produced little and amidst the malaise, there was plenty of time to reminisce.

It felt like an act of defiance too.

Stewart Donald told supporters in his programme notes that the atmosphere behind the scenes is the best he has witnessed since arriving on Wearside.

It seems scarcely credible when the manager only a couple of weeks ago excluded his most creative player, conceding that the atmosphere within the squad was not what he should be.

Donald can surely see, too, the lack of confidence and identity in the side he is watching at the Stadium of Light.

Supporters can certainly see it and so these thoughts of better days felt poignant and defiant. A reminder that Sunderland can be better than this, they should be better than this, and that this can never be considered acceptable.

By full time, they had dropped to 15th.

A congested table it may be, but Sunderland are there on merit. At the moment, they cannot even be considered play-off contenders.

Winless since November 2nd, without an away goal in the league since September, scoring more than once in a game on only one occasion since Parkinson took charge.

They are reliant on set pieces to create attacking opportunities and in defence, they are giving up key chances with relative regularity.

They are currently not even close to being one of the six best teams in the league and that is worth dwelling on a little longer.

Donald sacked Ross in early October, a decision backed by many with Sunderland sixth in the table.

He said that he believed Sunderland to have the best squad in the division, and that making a change was the best way to secure promotion.

Since then they have not beaten a side above the bottom four.

Now, the January transfer window is presented as the vital moment that can turn things around.

Time on the training pitch had made minimal difference. The return of injured players had made minimal difference.

The mood by the final whistle was very different.

There were some good saves from Remi Matthews in the very closing stages but it was far too little, far too late.

Parkinson had drawn fury when Tom Flanagan pulled up injured, Bolton at that stage clearly happy to sit in for a point.

The Black Cats boss opted to replace him with another defender, with Will Grigg, a striker who Parkinson had vowed to get the best of on arrival, was left unused on the bench.

Since Ross departed Sunderland have worsened in every department.

Now departed Charlie Methven said that decision was based on ‘underlying perfomance data’, which by and large had Sunderland as one of the better sides in the division, albeit not one of the elite.

That is now emphatically not the case and the lack of action and concern is worrying.

In the short term, their automatic promotion hopes are all but gone and in the long term, there is a growing fear that many will simply stay away and when this is what is on offer, who could blame them?

The contrast between this and the Boxing Day fixture last year, a poor game but one which was almost a sell-out as fans put their faith in the club’s new start, was stark.

From the moment Sunderland fell to last-gasp defeat at Wembley, the management of the club has been a litany of mistakes.

A hundred point target was set but takeover talks that yielded no result prevented the work being done in the transfer market that was needed to make that even remotely possible.

The shortcomings in the club’s structures, particularly in recruitment, have been badly exposed and the managerial change thus far has been nothing short of a disaster.

Donald’s programme comments, and the apparent belief that January will make the difference, has raised fears among supporters that the gravity of the situation has not been grasped.

From top to bottom, it has been nowhere near good enough for months and it has left legions of fans at their lowest ebb.

In their current guise, Sunderland feel as if they are going nowhere.

The gravity of that has to dawn on those in a position to do something about it before it is too late.