Phil Smith's verdict: The revealing Jack Ross comments as Sunderland head into the play-offs with an insipid display

This mattered because of morale and at full time, you could feel that.

By Phil Smith
Sunday, 05 May, 2019, 08:16
Jack Ross was frustrated with his side after defeat at Southend United

Understandably after two such poor performances, there is a frustration and a fear ahead of the play-off campaign.

Sunderland have now won just one in seven.

There have been times in that period where they have been very unlucky, but not in the last 135 minutes.

The second half at Fleetwood and the vast majority of this limp defeat was simply nowhere near good enough.

Jack Ross now has a huge task to lift his players; the club a huge task to lift the fans in time for the arrival of Portsmouth next Saturday.

The contrast between Sunderland's insipid offering at Roots Hall and Charlton Athletic's emphatic four goal win over Rochdale could not have been starker. Lee Bowyer's side deservedly snatched third.

That was the other reason this mattered.

Charlton now face Doncaster Rovers - a good, energetic side who have proven to be a match for anyone on their day this season.

But a side 12 points off the pace of the top five.

Now Sunderland face a difficult task against a side who have proven to be such a mentally and physically draining opponent this season.

Of course, there is no time for fatalism given how dominant they were against Kenny Jackett's side the last time the two met, goalkeeper Craig MacGillivray the difference with a string of excellent saves.

Pompey, too, have thrown away three big opportunities over the last week and the reaction of star defender Matt Clarke to their latest draw was revealing.

"This game doesn’t define where you finish overall, but it would have been nice to get a convincing win, keep a clean sheet, score some goals, and gone into the play-offs with the momentum," he said.

‘"We played some good football without creating much in the first half, then to concede straight after the break was frustrating and gave us a bit of a mountain to climb.

"We had a good, solid first-half and were looking to build on that and that goal knocked us.

"Maybe we were a bit flat, but there isn’t that flatness in the camp, we are confident, we are close to playing well in many respects," he added.

"Maybe it’s not clicking for us, but hopefully it does over the next three games.

"We didn’t win it (against Accrington) so you can’t say we should have done this and deserved to do that.

"The long and short of it is we didn’t win today and will be looking to perform a little bit better and get a couple of wins over the next few games."

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Like Sunderland, they are a side searching for more fluidity and ruthlessness at a crucial time.

Ross rightly pointed out post-match that against the sides at the top, Sunderland have a very good record.

For that first leg he will hope to call on Aiden McGeady, Lee Cattermole and Lewis Morgan. Those players were sorely missed and it was another comment made by Ross that was revealing.

“I think in some cases, it probably gave me more answers than questions in terms of the games that are coming up," he added.

"They knew there’s an opportunity to be involved in these games that are coming up because I’ve been quite fair in that respect this season. Some of the changes we made were enforced, but there were a couple that were trying to bring a bit of freshness to it.

"When you do that, you’re looking for those that have been given the opportunity to take it. But we just didn’t play well today."

This was a defeat that brought some key lessons, perhaps just at the right time.

Those given a chance to stake their claim were unable to do so and it was another game in which Sunderland looked ill-equipped to play a relatively traditional 4-4-2.

Charlie Wyke and Will Grigg struggled to find each other, their movement flat. The Black Cats struggled to build possession in dangerous areas and threatened only briefly on the counter attack.

Sunderland's record with Wyke and Grigg up front is mixed at best.

They helped deliver two vital wins at Accrington and Rochdale but there have been no wins and two defeats in the other four games they have started.

Ross got a reaction from his side by throwing on Luke O'Nien into an attacking midfield role, with Kazaiah Sterling and Chris Maguire getting tight to Wyke in an ultra-attacking 4-3-3.

The drive that had been so badly lacking was there and it did look for a while like Sunderland could go on and win the game.

More poor defending put pay to that and as it has been all season, that is a big concern for Ross. The right partnerships to deliver clean sheets remain elusive.

The Sunderland boss suggested that this game had cleared up some big questions ahead of the end-of-season lottery.

Right now, the momentum is with Charlton.

It is up to Ross and his players to get that feel-good factor back with an energetic, quality display in front of what will be a sizeable Stadium of Light crowd next Saturday.

One more performance like this will end their season.