Phil Smith's verdict: Making sense of Sunderland's dramatic and costly night - and what must happen next

With Chris Maguire there was one Jack Ross quote that always stuck in the memory.

Wednesday, 12th January 2022, 11:55 am
Updated Wednesday, 12th January 2022, 11:55 am

Maguire had come off the bench to turn the tide against Accrington Stanley, rescuing a point with one of those irrepressible performances, grabbing it by the game by scruff of its neck and bending it to his will.

"When Chrissy plays like that, he will always be in my team," Ross said.

Therein lay the conundrum. How do you coax that level out week in, week out? And can you? Ross would be neither the first nor the last to wrestle with that uncertainty and inconsistency.

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Chris Maguire completes his hat-trick at the Stadium of Light

For two reasons, Maguire's yellow ten minutes into this game was the crucial moment.

First and foremost it was a wild, late challenge on Carl Winchester that could easily have yielded a red. And in some stern words with Lee Johnson on the touchline in the immediate aftermath, Maguire had the confrontation he craved. And off he went.

Johnson was diplomatic afterwards. Maguire rarely made his team in the second half of last season and so some residual frustration on the player's part was to be expected.

The head coach was also employed with a clear brief to play his part in bringing down the average age of the squad, and to put trust in younger talent.

Maguire's departure was ultimately one of many that reflected that.

Johnson knew, too, that Maguire's hat-trick ultimately stemmed from the shortcomings of his side, who had turned in one of their worst performances of the campaign.

Everything that followed on a dire night in the race for the top two flowed from a start that was sluggish and uninspiring.

“It’s three points and a big opportunity lost," Johnson said.

"Whether it be human error, poor tactics, poor execution, for whatever reason we haven’t started the game well enough.

"It was the first 25 minutes that led to the rest of the 65 minutes being a stretch for us.”

The snap and incision that has defined Sunderland' s play in recent weeks deserted them right from the off.

As Johnson said, too often there were too many players taking far too many touches on the ball.

Long before Maguire's super opener the hosts were labouring, centre-backs drifting on the ball and demanding better movement all too regular.

Part of that owed to a resilient Lincoln performance. Though the visitors defended deep they pressed aggressively when the ball was played into midfield, and broke well with a talented front three whose quality belies their lowly position in the League One table.

That they were aided by a loose Sunderland display was inarguable, and though Maguire's celebration ultimately took the headlines the first goal was a reflection of that.

It was desperately poor defending, switching off and allowing the visitors to take a quick free kick into a dangerous area.

It summed up a sloppy, lacklustre performance.

A generous interpretation would be to say that perhaps the demands of the recent schedule, in which Sunderland have had a threadbare squad, caught up with them.

A less generous view, but one that Johnson agreed may well be fair, is that complacency had set in after a run of games in which Sunderland had carved open their opponents at will.

The pitch, it should be said, was a major problem.

Within minutes it was clear that the likes of Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton couldn't trust their first touch or their passing, which slowed Sunderland down and made it easier for Lincoln to frustrate.

Though the issue was worsened by the decision to water the game before kick-off, which Johnson was at a loss to explain, it is now a long-term problem which threatens to hinder Sunderland's style of play.

Something has clearly gone badly wrong when the surface at Wycombe is better for Johnson's side than their own turf.

It was all in all a wretched night, and one with potentially significant consequences for the automatic promotion race.

If there had been some level of debate in the build up to this clash as to whether it was better to have points on the board (Sunderland) or games in hand (Wigan Athletic), then there is no doubt now where the advantage lies.

After three-and-a-half arduous years Sunderland should not have needed a reminder that there is no easy game in League One, no scenario in which you can ease off.

The margin for error has just got considerably smaller for the Black Cats, and a night like this simply cannot happen again.

Perhaps it was, to an extent at least, just one of those nights.

In key areas normally dependable performers laboured. Neil and Carl Winchester have been superb all season, but dipped well below their usual levels here. Alex

Pritchard was not quite at his sharpest (but still made some key attacking contributions), and afterwards Johnson revealed that he had only been 50/50 to start the game due to a knock.

What it did underline was the need for reinforcements before the end of the month.

If Jack Diamond and Josh Hawkes are to return to Harrogate Town and Tranmere Rovers as expected, then Johnson's options in the final third are severely limited.

And while his versatility is admirable, Lynden Gooch's understandable limitations as a full back were exposed here.

Though Trai Hume is expected to gradually come into contention as he settles into new surroundings, the looseness with which Sunderland defended exposed the long-term need for a quick, dominant centre-back, a player that has largely eluded the club ever since they dropped to the level (a fit Jordan Willis clearly went some way to addressing the issue).

Sunderland will have to produce an outstanding run of form to land a top-two place from here. They are capable, but they need help.

They also quite simply cannot afford lapses like this, a defeat that went well beyond the immutable law of the ex.

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