WHEN Paul Smyth headed home at the start of the second half last night, Sunderland were staring down the barrel of the worst result in their 140-year history.

In the end, two goals in the space of eight second-half minutes at least partially spared their blushes.

Still, though, the identity of their opponents as they drew 2-2 in the third tier says much about how far they have fallen. Accrington Stanley, who are they? Exactly.

In fairness, that is probably doing a disservice to an Accrington side that have acquitted themselves reasonably well since they were promoted from League Two last season, but the harsh reality is that Sunderland have to beat this kind of opposition if they are to haul themselves back into the Championship.

They couldn’t manage it, just as they failed to beat Blackpool on Tuesday night, and have now failed to win seven of their last nine league matches. For all that clawing back a two-goal deficit might show spirit, Sunderland’s habit of drawing home games is now a chronic failing.

It could have been much worse of course, with an Accrington side that had failed to score a league goal in 2019 claiming a two-goal advantage thanks to a penalty from Billy Kee and a second-half header from Smyth.

Sunderland were a shambles at that stage, but Chris Maguire’s arrival from the substitutes’ bench changed things, with the replacement setting up two goals in the space of seven minutes.

George Honeyman tapped home the first, with Aiden McGeady sweeping home a side-footed shot to claim the other, but while Luke O’Nien had a last-minute effort ruled out for offside, the Black Cats never really looked like claiming a winner despite plenty of late pressure.

Maguire should surely have started ahead of Charlie Wyke, who continues to look badly out of sorts, and as he reflects on another disappointing outcome, Jack Ross might well conclude he got other aspects of his starting selection wrong.

Ross freely admits he has been scratching around for a successful formula in the last few weeks, and while last night’s starting line-up only featured one personnel change from Tuesday’s draw – Wyke replacing Duncan Watmore – there was a significant tactical switch with Wyke partnering Will Grigg at the head of a 4-4-2 formation.

Ross has tended to shy away from playing 4-4-2 for the majority of his Sunderland reign, but by sacrificing an extra midfielder in order to accommodate two centre-forwards, the Black Cats boss effectively ceded a degree of control in the middle of the park in an attempt to make his side more of a threat in the final third.

Safe to say the ploy was far from successful. Sunderland created chances in the opening half-an-hour, but were unable to take them, and at the other end, the home side were left wide open whenever Accrington counter-attacked.

Their defensive insecurity proved their undoing when Accrington broke the deadlock in the 30th minute, although the visitors would have been behind by the time Kee scored from the penalty spot had Grigg displayed even a modicum of the composure that might have been expected from a £4m striker.

The Northern Ireland international spurned two gilt-edged chances on Tuesday, and while neither of last night’s misses were as bad as the one that saw him fail to find the target after rounding the goalkeeper three days earlier, they provided further evidence of an edginess that will only increase until Grigg finally claims his first Sunderland goal.

He should have broken his duck in the 13th minute of last night’s game, but while Reece James picked him out perfectly after McGeady released him on an overlapping run down the left, he snatched at the ball and directed a tame side-footed effort well wide of the target.

Eight minutes later and he was found wanting again, hooking a first-time strike over the crossbar after O’Nien’s long throw flicked off a defender’s head.

Grigg’s League One scoring record suggests the goals will come, but with their promotion rivals threatening to pull away, Sunderland could have done with him hitting the ground running. Actually, merely hitting the target would have been a start.

McGeady ensured there was a regular supply line into the box, but for all that the hosts attacked with purpose early on, their inability to keep things tight at the other end was alarming.

Grant Leadbitter found himself trying to cover two or three breaking midfielders whenever Accrington switched play from their defensive third, and with McGeady failing to track back, James was repeatedly exposed down Sunderland’s left.

Ross Sykes served notice of Accrington’s attacking threat as early as the second minute, heading over from a corner, but the visitors had to do precious little to fashion their opener on the half-hour mark. Instead, Sunderland, or more precisely, Jack Baldwin, effectively handed them an opening goal on a plate.

There were plenty of defenders around Smyth as he headed towards the dead-ball line, but Baldwin opted to throw himself into a wholly unnecessary challenge and only succeeded in sweeping his opponents’ legs from under him.

Accrington had not scored a league goal since Boxing Day, but Kee ended the longest goalless sequence in English football as he hammered home from the penalty spot. Trust Sunderland to ensure Stanley did not have to suffer any longer.

The visitors were in dreamland as they headed into the break, but even better was to come seven minutes after the interval.

Wyke missed a glorious opportunity for Sunderland at the start of the second half, shooting wide from four yards after O’Nien slid a low cross across the area, but Smyth showed no such wastefulness as he doubled Accrington’s lead just 60 seconds later.

The Stanley striker stole between O’Nien and Jimmy Dunne to meet Sean McConville’s left-wing cross, and beat Jon McLaughlin with a powerful downward header.

With boos ringing around the Stadium of Light, Ross immediately turned to Maguire, who came on to replace the thoroughly ineffectual Wyke. Within two minutes of coming on to the field, the replacement was having an immediate impact.

Maguire’s cross from the left-hand side was turned back across the area by a sliding Grigg, and Honeyman was left with the simple task of slotting home from close range.

Suddenly, Sunderland were a completely different proposition, with Maguire pulling the strings, and while Lynden Gooch fired a low shot straight at Accrington goalkeeper Jonny Maxted when he was well-positioned inside the area, the hosts did not have to wait long for their equaliser.

Maguire was involved again, receiving the ball from McGeady before cutting a return pass into the Irishman’s path.

Displaying the kind of composure that had been lacking in a number of his team-mates, McGeady calmly swept a side-footed finish into the bottom corner.