Sunderland 1 Doncaster Rovers 2: Promotion hopes dented for managerless Cats

Sunderland slumped to a dire defeat against League One’s basement club on Saturday afternoon, leaving their automatic promotion credentials in major doubt.

Nearly 39,000 had packed into the Stadium of Light to witness an emotional return for Jermain Defoe, but by the time he was introduced with 20 minutes to play the damage had already been done.

First-half goals from Reo Griffiths and Tommy Rowe left the insipid home side with a mountain to climb, and was a fair reflection of a dire first-half performance.

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Sunderland twice hit the woodwork in a better second half showing and though they should have had a goal when Ross Stewart’s header seemingly dropped over the line, there could be few complaints about the end result.

Sunderland laboured to a costly defeat against Doncaster Rovers

Corry Evans reduced the deficit just before stoppage time but it was too little, too late for the Back Cats.

With Kristjaan Speakman stating before the game that Sunderland were still establishing their shortlist for a new head coach, it was left to an interim team led by Mike Dodds to lead the team.

They opted not to make significant changes to the side, with only Alex Pritchard coming into an XI that had lost 6-0 to Bolton Wanderers last week. They did alter the shape, however, with Carl Winchester surprisingly dropping into a right-sided role in the back three.

They did have the best of the early chances, with Ross Stewart missing a good opportunity to head his side into the lead from a set piece, with Dan Neil doing similar five minutes later.

Even accounting for that, though, there was a sluggishness to Sunderland’s play right from the off. Players taking too many touches, not enough bravery to show for the ball or get into the box early.

Doncaster Rovers had looked insipid themselves, but a simple long ball forward was all it took to rip the home defence open. On debut Griffiths raced through and Hoffmann should perhaps have done better, getting a palm to his shot but watching it roll on over the line.

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If the home support hoped it would spark a response, quite the opposite occurred.

Hoffmann almost let Doncaster in for a second when he spilled a long-range shot, but the goalkeeper did well to recover and deny Olowu at close range.

It was the visitors who continued to create the best of the chances, Seaman striking the foot of the post after an initial long-range shot was blocked.

Sunderland threatened briefly when a short corner saw Alex Pritchard cross for Ross Stewart, and the Scot should have done better in heading wide from the edge of the six-yard box.

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But a dire first half ended in a second for Doncaster, the hosts unable to clear their lines from a corner and allowing Rowe to thump an effort into the roof of the net.

The interim team decided not to make half-time changes, though they did revert to a back four as Gooch moved out to the left wing.

The Black Cats looked more threatening, Mitchell saving well from Pritchard and Neil as the hosts started to build overdue pressure.

Stewart looked to have reduced the deficit when his header from a Pritchard cross looked to have crossed the line, but the officials somehow waved play on as the hosts were offered a reprieve.

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Substitute Jack Clarke was making an impact, a strong burst through the middle resulting in Elliot Embleton striking the post from range.

Sunderland were by now camped in the opposition half and though Evans’ effort reduced the deficit with minutes to play, it was not enough to rescue something from the game.

Defoe saw little of the in the final 20 minutes, as the home side held on with relative comfort.

Sunderland XI: Hoffmann; Winchester (Clarke, 60) , Batth, Doyle; Gooch, Evans, Neil (Matete, 72), Cirkin; Embleton (Defoe, 72), Pritchard; Stewart

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Subs: Patterson, Hume, Roberts, Dajaku

Doncaster Rovers XI: Mitchell; Younger, Olowu, Williams, Jackson, Smith, Rowe, Seaman, Martin (Gardner, 69), Odubeko (Dodoo, 74), Griffiths

Subs: Jones, Agard, Clayton, Knoyle, Barlow

Bookings: Evans, 29

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Attendance: 38,385