Phil Smith's verdict: The stat that shows why Sunderland can still finish their 'what-if' season on a promotion high

Perhaps it was fitting that Sunderland's automatic promotion hopes all but came to an end with a 1-1 draw.

Sunday, 28th April 2019, 11:50 am
Updated Sunday, 28th April 2019, 11:54 am
Tom Flanagan heads Sunderland into an early lead against Portsmouth

Football writer and Sunderland fan Jonathan Wilson tweeted after the game: "Sunderland have played 44 league games this season; 74 of them have finished 1-1."

Any fan who has watched the Black Cats through the season would recognise that sentiment.

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Before the game, Jack Ross had been asked about his side's remarkable draw record.

It was 18 then, now 19.

Fairly, the Black Cats boss pointed out that it was difficult to establish the main factor for that, as the nature of the draws have been so varied this season.

There have been the games where Sunderland conceded late, but in truth did not play well enough to warrant a lead in the first place (Scunthorpe, Oxford away).

Tom Flanagan heads Sunderland into an early lead against Portsmouth

Games where they battled back impressively against the odds to avoid defeat (Walsall away).

Games where soft defending left them with too much ground to make up in earning three points (Accrington, Shrewsbury at home).

Games where they did not kill off the game when on top and were eventually made to pay (Charlton away, Luton at home).

That remarkable draw record tells us two things, then. That this is a team of excellent resilience, tough to beat, but just lacking that clinical edge to take them into the top two.

There are plenty of other categories and this was another.

Jon McLaughlin has had plenty of excellent games this season, so it would be churlish to dwell too much on Craig MacGillivray.

But if bringing in McLaughlin was an outstanding decision by Sunderland, Portsmouth's own Scot has proven a remarkable free transfer. He was on Shrewsbury's bench last season but has shown his worth in this campaign, making superb stops at the Stadium of Light from Lewis Morgan, Charlie Wyke, Max Power and Will Grigg.

The Black Cats did not bang the door down in the second half, but they were by far the superior team and on another day would have won comfortably.

In a second half where it was all on the line for both teams, McLaughlin was not once called into significant action.

It will not be the two points dropped here that define Sunderland's absence from the top two, nor the draw at Peterborough, as frustrating as that soft late goal was.

Draws at home against Blackpool and Accrington Stanley in one week are a better place to start in that discussion, likewise the one point drawn from games against Burton Albion and Coventry City when the pendulum looked to have swing firmly in Sunderland's favour.

The stark reality now is that Sunderland will almost certainly have to go the play-offs. Even with two wins in the next week, they will fall just short of their two points-per-game target.

Debates about the reasons for that will rightly be held should Sunderland fail to get over the line.

There is much to learn, much to improve.

Yet it was hard to disagree with Jack Ross when he spoke of his pride at the way his team had performed on Saturday.

Under immense pressure they went toe-to-toe with Portsmouth and then some. The atmosphere was outstanding with over 40,000 turning out. This is a club that has indeed come a long way in a year.

Sunderland's Wembley record means that no one will relish the play-offs.

But the record of Ross' side against the six sides they could yet face in the play-off campaign is instructive.

Played 12, won four, drawn seven, lost one.

Not outstanding, but impressive and a clear sign that Sunderland are capable of holding their own against anyone.

This latest display will hopefully serve as an important psychological boost for everyone at the club.

It was another 'what if' day for Sunderland.

But there should still be hope that it will not end up as a what if season.

Until then, a forensic inquest serves little purpose.