Sunderland’s players must find the mental toughness to compete in the Championship – and fast.
That was the blunt message from skipper Lee Cattermole after the Black Cats suffered back to back league defeats.
Simon Grayson’s side were beaten 3-0 at Barnsley on Saturday as the Tykes leapfrogged Sunderland in the table.
Teenagers Ike Ugbo and Harvey Barnes scored their first Championship goals in a five-minute first-half spell, after the away side had controlled the opening half an hour.
Despite more than half the game remaining, there looked only one winner once Barnes had volleyed in the second goal in the 35th minute.
George Moncur fired in the third midway through the second period and, while Lewis Grabban forced keeper Adam Davies to palm a shot over the bar, the Tykes were not flattered by the margin of victory.
“It was very frustrating,” explained Cattermole.
“We probably conceded against the run of play and then we weren’t strong enough, mentally or physically, to cope with what Barnsley threw at us after that.
“For the first 20 or 30 minutes, I thought we were the better side.”
And Cattermole says the mental fragility must be eradicated if Sunderland are to challenge in the second tier.
Cattermole might be correct in saying the opener, by on-loan Chelsea youngster Ugbo, came against the run of play, but that is when the players must stand up to be counted – not hide back in their shells.
“It was just a bit of weakness,” he admitted. ““I think there were people feeling a little bit sorry for themselves when we went behind and suddenly it’s like the game’s over having been the better side for the first 20, 30 minutes.
“You need to keep doing what you’ve been doing and play yourselves back into the game.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that.”
The way Sunderland approached the game suggested the team were well set to extend the unbeaten run on the road to three matches in the league, and five in all competitions.
There was a brightness in their play and positivity from the three most advanced players – James Vaughan, George Honeyman and Lewis Grabban.
The final ball, alas, was not always the best, but the intent was certainly there.
“We should have punished them,” said Cattermole. “We should have gone in front, but we didn’t have the quality to go and take the lead.
“It was a lack of quality with the ball and lack of discipline and attitude without it.
“It was very frustrating and it’s a massive wake-up call for us.”
Cattermole believes a shortage of Championship nous is affecting the team as it beds into the second tier following relegation.
“We’re probably lacking a bit of experience in this league,” said the 29-year-old.
“The manager’s brought some new boys in who know the division. We played quite well on the ball but came away with nothing and that shows what the league is like.”