Phil Smith's verdict: Why a positive week for Sunderland ended in a frustration all too familiar

As Jordan Graham knocked the ball round Lee Burge and fired it into the roof of the net, Steve Evans began to circle his dugout.

Sunday, 31st January 2021, 12:00 pm

It was a celebration of sorts; the Gillingham boss seemingly irate with just about everyone and everything in his eyeline. A manager who can quite literally pick a fight in an empty stadium.

To his credit, though, his side had come to scrap in his image and that late equaliser was fully deserved.

Sunderland were minutes away from taking three crucial points but there was no arguing that over the course of the game, they had been found wanting.

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Sunderland dropped two points in the last minute at the Stadium of Light

Reflecting on the game and that goal, Lee Johnson looked and sounded as frustrated as he has been at any stage during his Sunderland tenure to date.

First and foremost, the head coach was left baffled by the basic maths of Graham's goal.

When the free kick was launched forward from deep, less than a minute of normal time to be played, Gillingham had a 5v4 overload.

Even if the first header had been won by a defender in a red-and-white shirt, the Black Cats were facing an uphill battle.

More broadly, that moment of naivety reflected the poor game management Sunderland had shown throughout.

Gillingham's set pieces are their weapon; an excellent long throw and the ability to fire free kicks from deep into difficult areas with impressive consistency.

Yet time and time again Sunderland played into their hands, giving up cheap fouls with frustrating regularity.

Though the Black Cats had a spell in the second half where they were able to establish some control, by the time of Graham's goal those set pieces had already yielded two gilt-edged chances for Evans' side.

There were some narrow margins in play, for sure.

Aiden McGeady looked as sharp as he has done since returning to the fold in the first half and twice went close to doubling his tally in that second period. Just moments before that free-kick was launched deep into Sunderland territory, he had teed up Aiden O'Brien and only a strong block had prevented the Irishman from scoring.

On the balance of play, though, a point was the very least Gillingham deserved.

Though their approach was direct in the extreme (Johnson had fairly baulked at suggestions post-match that Gillingham had a lot of possession, saying he'd accept they'd had a lot of box entries and territory), the gameplan was in some elements more positive than many sides who visit the Stadium of Light.

That they had so many chances to bombard the box came partially through Sunderland's slackness, but also partially due to their genuinely aggressive press from first minute to last.

In Graham, they also had a player whose ability in 1-v-1 situations meant Sunderland never looked settled.

It was a game in which the Black Cats would undoubtedly have benefited from the presence of Bailey Wright.

Dion Sanderson had looked the most likely candidate to replace Wright after his head injury on Tuesday night but perhaps wary of the set piece threat, Johnson opted to go for the taller and more experienced option in Tom Flanagan.

Wright does not look quite as comfortable in a back four as he did in the early days of the season, but these are the spells in games when he comes alive.

It's in these moments that he tends to excel, the kind of player who might well have helped Sunderland get over the line in the 2018/19 season where an ability to cope with physical sides was the ultimate downfall of a generally good outfit.

To Johnson, he is something of a throwback, a perfect example to a new generation of players.

"They could text each other or send a whatsapp, no bother," Johnson said.

"It's that old-school mentality to bring people around you, and not be ashamed to say you need help or cover. For that one action, we didn't do that well enough."

Back-to-back league wins and some positive strides in the transfer market had lifted the mood considerably in the days previous.

The deal to bring Ross Stewart to the club from Ross County is not done, but appears to be progressing positively.

Five days after Johnson said he would 'ideally' like to land three more players before the window shuts, it appears the club are on the brink of delivering exactly that without any major deadline-day drama.

It's a positive reflection on the new set up behind the scenes, with the salary cap and a period of significant turbulence presenting major challenges.

Whether this trio of deals represents the business Sunderland needs remains to be seen, but it is encouraging that there is a clear logic to the arrivals.

Jones will need time to get up to speed but adds more pace to a squad that clearly needed it, while Jake Vokins is the natural and attack-minded left back that became a key priority the moment Denver Hume suffered a recurrence of a hamstring injury.

Saturday afternoon nevertheless served as a reminder of why right now, Sunderland have to make significant progress to look like genuine promotion contenders.

The visit of Gillingham represented the kind of test that Sunderland have not passed anywhere near often enough since dropping into League One.

Johnson's clear frustration reflected the disappointment of momentum once again stalled.

When these games no longer cause a tremor in the Sunderland fanbase, you will know he is making serious progress.

That feels some way off still on what was, when it comes down to it, another bitterly disappointing afternoon at the Stadium of Light.

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