The seemingly interminable wait for Sunderland’s first home win since December endures. This latest defeat leaves their manager, Simon Grayson, under severe pressure before Bolton Wanderers’s visit on Tuesday for what already looks ominously like a relegation six-pointer.
He has inherited a poisoned chalice on Wearside but after one Championship win in 14 attempts he knows he is fast running out of time to put things right.
Ellis Short, the club’s American owner, wants to sell up and has left England for a new life in Florida, but the financier’s failure to sever ties with the club dictates he now faces an awkward decision. Does Short trust his latest manager to eventually avert the prospect of a second straight relegation or replace him?
“We’re making bad decisions and gifting the opposition opportunities,” said Grayson, who, refused to defend his players after watching them flatter to deceive in the first half before ultimately surrendering. “We’re starting to make it very difficult for ourselves. We need to start winning very quickly. I’m disappointed with some of the players’ performances. We’ve got to start doing the basics right.”
In starkly refreshing contrast, doing things rights is becoming second nature to Bristol City and their bright young manger, Lee Johnson, whose incisively intelligent side might just prove capable of ending their city’s long wait for Premier League football. Fresh from their Carabao Cup heroics against Crystal Palace, they started slowly but ended in thoroughly convincing fashion.
“I’m pleased with the second half but the first half was a wake-up call,” said Johnson. “It was well below our standards.”
Grayson said too many of his players have developed the unfortunate habit of hiding by “staying close to a defender and effectively trying to mark themselves” instead of attempting to get on the ball.
Initially, at least, there were encouraging signs that this psychological barrier was slowly starting to be dismantled. When Duncan Watmore chipped a perfectly weighted pass into Lewis Grabban’s path, the striker’s attempted dink eluded the goalkeeper, Frank Fielding, only to drift slightly off target.
At that point Bristol’s subdued play seemed out of synch with their vivid purple and lime away kit but with 28 minutes gone they mounted their first serious attack. It concluded with a goal.
Defending set pieces has become a serious problem for the fast regressing Lamine Koné (did Everton really bid £18m for him?) and company in recent weeks. True to form, Grayson’s backline had no answer to the excellent Callum O’Dowda’s inswinging corner from the right, allowing it to reach Bobby Reid, who headed home for his ninth goal of the season. If the failure to shadow him will have concerned Grayson so, too, might Jason Steele’s failure to come off his line and challenge for the ball.
Sunderland have a tendency to fold once they fall behind but, temporarily at least, they did rally here, equalising close to half-time.
After Fielding saved a shot from Aiden McGeady, his defence only half-cleared the danger and the ball ricocheted around the box before Grabban forced it into the back of the net from close range.
Suitably spurred by Johnson’s homily, the visitors re-emerged in appreciably more aggressive mode. This new-found visiting menace increased with the 55th‑minute introduction of Milan Djuric. The Bosnian striker is almost 6ft 7in and his physical presence created a decided edginess among the home backline.
Such concern proved warranted when the newcomer restored Bristol’s lead. Slapdash marking from the negligent Koné permitted O’Dowda to float a left-wing cross in Djuric’s direction and the substitute responded by out-jumping O’Shea and powering a header past Steele from six yards.
From then on, Sunderland looked like the sorry strugglers they are. Their travails dictated that locals found the sight of their former manager Roy Keane in the stands - on an Ireland scouting mission - particularly bittersweet.
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