Under-fire Sunderland boss David Moyes said the Tees-Wear derby defeat was “tough to take” - but insists it wasn’t for the lack of trying.
Sunderland, rooted to the foot of the Premier League and destined for the Championship next season, were beaten 1-0 by relegation rivals Middlesbrough.
With games quickly running out, this was a must-win.
The Black Cats started brightly but fell behind to a ninth-minute Marten De Roon goal and never recovered.
Moyes thought criticism of his side’s display was unfair and he is refusing to concede defeat in the club’s relegation battle until it is mathematically impossible to stay up.
Sunderland are 12 points adrift of safety with just five games to go.
The Scot, said: “The players kept at it and never gave in. While there’s a chance we all have to keep going, we’re not enjoying losing or the position we’re in.
“Criticism is rightly due but not on tonight’s performance, players have stuck at it and shown they’re capable of trying to get points and win games.”
Moyes came under fire from the sold-out away support, with this Sunderland’s 22nd defeat in 33 Premier League games.
“It was a tough one to take,” added Moyes.
“We played well at times but didn’t create enough chances.
“We could have criticism in other games which was right, but tonight and against West Ham United we played well.
“We didn’t give them many opportunities, they didn’t give us many either, but thought we did enough.
“It wasn’t for the lack of want or trying, players fantastic in effort they put in but came up short.
“Gave away a poor goal when on top at the start and it meant we chased for rest of the game.”
Sunderland have managed just five wins all season and face Bournemouth at the Stadium of Light on Saturday afternoon.
Sunderland will be relegated this weekend if they lose to the Cherries and Hull City avoid defeat at Southampton.