Chris Maguire rescues point for Sunderland as George Dobson sees red against Bristol Rovers
The Black Cats had fought back from a woeful start to the game to apply a huge amount of pressure in the closing stages, but were unable to find the winning goal in a frenetic contest.
Chris Maguire had scored the equaliser with just over ten minutes to play after an early error from Lee Burge had allowed Luke Leahy to give Bristol Rovers the lead with an early penalty.
Sunderland had struggled for composure in the opening stages of the contest but forced some fine stops from Anssi Jaakola in the second half, and were left bitterly frustrated not to open their account with three points.
Parkinson had hinted in his pre-match remarks that he would stick by and large with the side that had played relatively well against Hull City last Saturday and that proved to be the case.
Josh Scowen’s goal and three assists were not enough to force his way into the side while Ben Garner’s Bristol Rovers bore little resemblance to the XI that ended Sunderland’s play-off hopes with a 2-0 win back in March.
Garner has looked to build a more youthful, athletic side and there was a debut for Brandon Hanlan, the former Gillingham striker who only arrived in Bristol on Thursday.
Though his goal record has never been spectacular, the 24-year-old caused the Sunderland defence problems in the side’s four meetings last year, and he had already made a contribution within three minutes of the contest.
Rovers fired a free-kick into the Sunderland box from just inside the home side’s half, and the ball broke for the striker after Lee Burge hesitated on his line.
Hanlan’s effort was blocked but in his desperation to clear the danger, Burge hauled down Jayden Mitchell-Lawson.
It was a clear penalty, and one emphatically dispatched by Leahy as rifled his effort into the top-left corner.
There was no lack of intensity from Sunderland, who committed bodies forward and were playing with tempo.
The issue was an absence of composure in possession, countless passes missing their target.
In truth, that was the case for both sides. It was an open contest, mainly due to possession being turned over regularly by two teams wanting to play on the front foot but lacking the execution to do it effectively.
Sunderland did go close to a response from a corner, Will Grigg’s header falling for Aiden O’Bruen. The Irishman was able to get a shot aay but the away side were able to clear.
Garner’s side were increasingly comfortable to sit a little deeper and play on the break, with Hanlan and his front three causing real problems when they were able to isolate the Sunderland back three in possesion.
They did look occasionally vulnerable in defence, and Chris Maguire should have done better when he was able to break into space down the left flank. Grigg was waiting in space on the edge of the area, but the pass was overhit and the danger soon passed.
Sunderland’s best effort of the half came just before the half-hour mark, when Tom Flanagan intercepted a pass just inside his own half and strode forward with purpose. It was a superb, driving run through the middle of the pitch and he did well to find Luke O’Nien on the edge of the box. O’Nien delayed his shot well, taking the two defenders in close quarters out of the equation. His left-foot shot was precise, but took a deflection and flew wide of the far post.
Sunderland were increasingly dominating both possession and territory, but remained guilty of not playing with enough precision.
They were limited to snap efforts from distance as a disappointing opening half drew to a comfortable close for the visitors.
The hosts started the second half with intensity but were caught on the counter and found themselves immensely fortunate not to be reduced to ten men within minutes of the restart.
Hanlan again broke free inside the Sunderland half, and just as he had done in the first half to earn a booking, Bailey Wright brought him down.
The referee reached for his pocket but opted against it at the last minute, handing the Australian an unlikely reprieve.
The Black Cats almost took instant advantage, a low drive from Maguire tipped round the post superbly by Jaakola in the Rovers goal.
Rovers had suffered a major setback when Hanlan limped off, denying them their best outlet on the break.
It was becoming noticebaly more for them to get out of their defensive third, Sunderland building real pressure in search of an equaliser. It almost came on the hour mark, O’Brien nodding a cross from Maguire just wide of the far post.
George Dobson went even closer within minutes, heading a good cross from O’Nien towards goal and denied only by a smart Jaakola stop.
The game looked to be drifting from Sunderland when Parkinson made his final gamble, switching to 4-4-2 and throwing on Gooch and Wyke.
The impact was almost immediate, Gooch playing a clever pass into the channel for Hume.
The wing-back played a low cross to Dobson, and though Rovers were able to clear the ball to the edge of the box, Maguire had halted his run well. He was able to take a touch before firing into the top corner.
It was a fine goal, and Max Power almost went one better within minutes, his stunning 25-yard strike somehow turned onto the post by Jaakola.
Sunderland continued to make all the running in the final stages and came within inches of the winner when Power saw another effort cleared off the line.