YET another game on the schedule. Exactly what Jack Ross did not want.

The Black Cats manager’s commitment to progression on all fronts – naming as strong a side as he could at Walsall – remains commendable, but Sunderland could have done without an extra fixture in December.

As Ross pointed out, the need for an FA Cup replay means his side will play nine matches between December 1 and January 1.

Had they performed as well as they did in the 2-2 League One draw at the Banks’s Stadium a week earlier – when Ross’ ten men rescued a point from two goals down – they would already be through.

But a creditable first-half display gave way to – in Ross’ own words – a ‘leggy’ second-half effort and, in truth, his side can consider themselves slightly fortunate to be in tonight’s hat at all.

It was probably bad enough for the visiting fans that Newcastle fan Andy Cook scored the equaliser.

If not for the woodwork and Jon McLaughlin’s positioning, the bustling Walsall forward would have notched the winner too and dumped the Black Cats out of the cup.

Instead, the sides must meet again – for a third time in three weeks – to further cram a festive programme that is clearly concerning Ross given his injury troubles.

George Honeyman and Chris Maguire are his latest worries – the skipper missing this trip with an ankle knock and the latter’s rib issues proving problematic enough that he withdrew in the warm-up.

Ross believes both will be fine within a few days but the FA Cup and Checkatrade Trophy commitments are piling extra pressure on a squad already stretched thin.

The manager admitted: “I wouldn’t have taken a replay at half-time but the way the second half panned out, we would probably have taken it.

“We didn’t play well in the second half and we looked, for the first time this season, a little bit leggy.

“That is understandable given the challenges we have had to date, both physically and mentally.

“I’ve spoken about the importance of progressing in the cup but, equally, we’ve got a lot of important league games coming up and our squad was stretched.

“I’m hoping some players will be back available because, including this, we have nine games before January 1, which is a lot. It’s a game every three-and-a-half days which is a big demand.”

While this was certainly not one of Sunderland’s best displays under Ross, the manager was keen to draw a line under it, given the Black Cats’ efforts thus far – they are 15 games unbeaten, after all.

He added: “My only criticism in the first half was that it became almost too straight-forward for us because we were very dominant.

“The second half, we didn’t respond to the challenge but I’m going to defend my players just simply because of what they have given me of late.

“They have been very good and they have a lot of demands placed upon them and this was the first time I thought it caught up with them a little bit.”

Sunderland’s two most experienced players, Bryan Oviedo and Aiden McGeady, were arguably their leading lights on their quick return to the West Midlands.

Oviedo only started because of Maguire’s pre-match discomfort but he fired in a 20th-minute shot from 20 yards that Josh Maja diverted to force a good save from home keeper Liam Roberts.

And the Costa Rican international set up Sunderland’s 37th-minute opener, Maja just failing to reach Oviedo’s teasing ball across the six-yard box but McGeady arriving at the far post to tuck home.

But those were the only two real openings as Sunderland failed to make the most of their first-half control against a Walsall side that looked extremely tentative.

That was perhaps no surprise – while Sunderland have qualified automatically for the third round these past 30-odd years, Walsall have failed to reach that lucrative stage in ten of the last 11 seasons.

However, the Saddlers improved considerably after the break, buoyed by Cook’s sublime first-time finish from Nicky Devlin’s low cross on 53 minutes.

McGeady provided Sunderland’s only second-half chance of note, the Republic of Ireland winger cutting in from the left to force another fine Roberts stop with a fierce 25-yard strike.

Walsall countered swiftly as Morgan Ferrier raced into the Black Cats’ box, only to be thwarted by the feet of McLaughlin, who stayed impressively big.

The keeper was beaten three minutes later when Cook’s looping header came back off the bar but McLaughlin was again well placed to gather the Walsall striker’s bullet header six minutes from time.

So, despite a fruitless late Sunderland rally, a replay beckons.

The Black Cats will be clear favourites, boasting home advantage against a side several places below them in League One.

But, with the other challenges awaiting them, they might well wish they had got the job done the first time around.