Sunderland's promotion hopes suffer huge blow after dire 2-0 loss at Bristol Rovers
Sunderland’s automatic promotion hopes took a major dent after they were comfortably beaten by Bristol Rovers.
Two goals for Jonson Clarke-Harris were no more than the home side deserved, with an utterly insipid Black Cats side barely threatening the opposition goal throughout a dismal performance.
A draw between Portsmouth and Fleetwood in the league’s other key fixture means that they have now dropped out of the play-off places.
Of course, the division remains remarkably tight, with Sunderland still just three points off second and within one point fo the four sides above them.
The concern is that they are now winless in four and every team above them has a game-in-hand.
Wycombe Wanderers, one place below them and level on points, have two.
Parkinson had urged his side not to be too knocked by Mikael Mandron’s late goal at the Stadium of Light on Saturday, noting that Rotherham United’s shock defeat to Rochdale had followed a similarly disappointing draw of their own against struggling MK Dons.
Bristol Rovers had found themselves in significant strife coming into the game, with just one win in 18 since Graham Coughlan had left them in fourth position to join Mansfield Town in League Two.
Ben Garner had been candid in admitting he was in need of results before the game, and did at least get one boost with talismanic striker Clarke-Harris passed fit to play after a recent injury.
For his part, Parkinson had finally decided to freshen his side up, handing full debuts to Josh Scowen and Antoine Semenyo.
Both made encouraging starts to the contest, but ultimately the travelling support did not see anything like the response to those dropped points they would have expected.
Initially, the home side sat deep and looked to soak up pressure.
They had matched up Sunderland’s 3-4-3 formation, but it was notable that out of possession the two attacking midfielders were dropping in and coming narrow to form a very low block.
The Black Cats were sluggish and found themselves immensely fortunate not to concede an early goal.
Miscommunication between Jordan Wilis and Alim Ozturk turned an aimless long ball into a dangerous attack, Jayden Mitchell-Lawson bursting into the box. His low cross took Jon McLaughlin out of the game, but Scowen had done superbly to track back and thumped it clear of danger.
Sunderland were creating little, their only effort of note coming when Kyle Lafferty rose to meet a deep free-kick from Alim Ozturk, his weak header easily gathered by Jamal Blackman.
Semenyo had made some encouraging driving runs to open the pitch up, but like many of his team-mates, had also been guilty of a slackness in possession.
Though McLaughlin had not been tested, it came as no great surprise when they fell behind on the half hour mark.
It was outstanding centre-forward play from Clarke-Harris, gathering a low cross into the box and spinning away from Luke O’Nien, who was helpless as he fell to the turf. A quick glance was all the striker needed before thumping a ferocious effort into the top corner.
Sunderland’s response was poor, and they could have been further behind at the break if not for a hugely contentious call from the referee.
Inside forward Cameron Hargreaves reacted quickest as a loose ball broke into the box, leaving McLaughlin with no choice but to surge off his line. Hargreaves got to the ball first before going to the ground, but referee Charles Breakspear took a moment to gather his thoughts before opting to show him a yellow card for diving.
Parkinson had seen enough at the break and Lafferty, who had been booked and was in regular dialogue with the official, was replaced by fit-again Charlie Wyke.
The interval chnaged little, Rovers happy to sit deep and absorb pressure while the Black Cats were unable to create any real openings.
By the time Lynden Gooch was introduced with around 20 minutes to play, they were still yet to test the home goalkeeper in any meaningful way.
They had to shown little sign of turning the tide and left themselves with a mountain to climb when the referee pointed to the spot.
Power had shown good desire to get out to the edge of the box to try and block the cross from Leahy, but his arms were raised as he made the connection.
McLaughlin dove the right way but couldn’t make a strong connection to deny Clarke-Harris his second.
It was almost three moments later when Mitchell-Lawson burst through the defence, but his effort was into the side netting.
Sunderland’s possession was yielding little and it continued to the hosts who went closest, Clarke-Harris almost sealing his hat-trick with a clever near-post volley that flew just wide of the post.
McLaughlin then had to get down well to deny him again moments later.
Parkinson threw on Will Grigg fir his first appearance since the middle of December, but with three minutes to play, it felt like little more than a token gesture as the Black Cats fell to a tame defeat having barely laid a glove on their opponent.
Grigg did close to scoring a consolation goal after flashing a header just over the bar in the dying seconds, but the home side had never looked like relinquishing their lead.
Bristol Rovers XI: Blackman, Craig, Sercombe, Clarke, Clarke-Harris (Kelly, 90) Leahy, Kilgour, Harries, Mitchell-Lawson (Daly, 79), Rodman, Hargreaves (Hare, 83)
Subs: Von Stappershoef, Bennett, Menayese, Matthews
Sunderland XI: McLaughlin, O’Nien, Willis, Ozturk (Gooch, 71), Flanagan, Hume, Power, Scowen (Grigg, 87), Semenyo, Maguire, Lafferty (Wyke, 45)
Subs: Burge, McLaughlin, Grigg, Dobson, Lynch
Bookings: Leahy, 30 Lafferty, 38 Ozturk, 41 Hargreaves, 45 Flanagan, 45
Attendance: 7,281 (1,175 away)